Americans’ privacy: Good buy

Retired Chico State University journalism professor and frequent contributor to the News & Review

Like most everybody, I have received letters recently from the banks and business houses with which I deal telling me I’m a valued customer whose personal privacy rights they want to protect. There’s a lot of detail written mostly in legal bafflegab that discusses the parameters within which they disclose certain private information about me to certain third parties for certain reasons, primarily the marketing of products and services.

These convoluted statements don’t offer much reassurance about my right to privacy, and the problem lies in their attempt to reconcile my rights as a citizen with my status as a consumer. The main thing that has come across to me out of my batch of mail is that so-called nonpublic information about me “may” be shared with third parties “as permitted by law.”

Take my bank, for example. I was discomfited to learn that such information includes: name, address, and phone number; Social Security number; account type, balances, and activity; credit card usage and payment history; deposit history; and parties to the transaction. Plus I can’t “opt out” of such information sharing.

From this list, let’s focus on my Social Security number. Buying and selling or otherwise providing SS numbers in the highly lucrative list-brokering business is perfectly legal, even though no single item of personal information is more important to the identity thief. Such theft now ranks nationwide as the fifth-largest felony crime category and is growing fast. Any consumer whose identity is stolen is in for the hassle of his or her life. No less a personage than golfer Tiger Woods recently journeyed to Sacramento to testify in court because his identity had been stolen.

Every year Democratic Congressman Jerry Kleczka from Wisconsin, a privacy crusader, introduces a bill to the House Ways and Means Committee to make the sale and purchase of SS numbers illegal. Each year the bill is assigned to the Social Security subcommittee, where it dies. Why? Because powerful business interests such as banking associations, insurance companies, credit card and credit services want it that way.

Personal privacy came up as a presidential campaign issue a year ago, and both Gore and Bush declared stoutly that the sale and purchase of SS numbers definitely should be illegal. Momentarily it appeared that this important problem would be solved, but the special-interest lobbyists got busy in earnest, and all that’s left today is the sound of one hand clapping.

The fact is that when a conflict arises between our rights as citizens and our status as consumers, our rights usually suffer. In our market-driven economy, that imbalance is inevitable because consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the gross domestic product. There’s one ray of hope: On July 16 the Assembly Business and Finance Committee OK’d a privacy bill it had killed twice before that would opt out private consumer information unless each consumer wrote to opt in, just the reverse of present practice, except for smaller regional banks like mine.

Key items I haven’t seen mentioned for sharing are my mother’s maiden name and my driver’s license number. All is not lost, at least not yet.