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Jewish World Review July 28, 1999 /15 Av, 5759

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell
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Is privacy an endangered species? --
ONE OF MY ODDEST EXPERIENCES was being pulled over by a highway patrolman who never approached my car to give me a ticket.

He stayed way back at his own car, writing so long that I joked with my passenger that he must be writing the great American novel. After a while, another car pulled up alongside him with two policemen. The mystery was deepening. Why would it take three armed men and a dog to give a ticket to some old geezer like me? It turned out that the highway patrolman had fed my car's license number into some computer database and discovered that I was the owner of registered firearms. Hence all the backup.

This dramatized for me something that I had only read about before-- the growth of national databases, in which all kinds of information from different sources are collected for each individual. Everything from an individual's medical condition to his financial condition can be brought together in cyberspace and used by all sorts of organizations for all sorts of purposes. It is a collectivist's dream-- and the nightmare of anyone who believes in privacy.

What the Big Brother types could not achieve through their aborted efforts to require national identity cards for everyone is now being achieved behind people's backs with computer databases. Keeping tabs on everyone from the cradle to the grave was once just a hope of those with a Gestapo mentality.

Today, the reality is that data starts being collected before you are born. There are "home visitation" programs that scan the medical records of expectant mothers and begin building up a social profile of the family of the unborn, all in the name of determining if this will be an "at risk" child. And all this goes into a national database. Banks are now announcing-- or, rather, mentioning in fine print, with convoluted language-- that they will be feeding your financial records into other databases, unless you specifically object by a given date.

With all the advertising literature you get in the mail, how many people are going to read these statements? All kinds of businesses and government agencies are selling your private information to the highest bidder-- or just feeding it into national databases, where your address, your bank account, your Social Security number, your car, your guns and your records from schools, courts, and hospitals can all be brought together for those who want a profile of you.

What do you have to fear, if you have always been an upstanding citizen with a spotless record? At a minimum, you may have junk mail pouring in every day and telemarketers phoning you during dinner, once they know that you have a little money and pay your bills. Others with less benign motives can target you for other things. Besides, whose business is it if you have been treated for diabetes or breast cancer? Or if you have a little cabin off in the woods someplace? In addition to government databases, there are private databases belonging to General Motors, Kraft Foods, and Blockbuster Entertainment that include records for tens of millions of people each. Telephone giant GTE has admitted selling unlisted phone numbers to telemarketers.

If your bank merges with an insurance company, then your financial records and your medical records may automatically become part of the same database. And if your employer pays for your medical insurance, he may have access to your medical history. How far has all this coordination of information gone? Much of it is done so quietly that most people are unaware that it is being done at all. A few get a glimpse of it by accident, as I did. Some would say that it is a good thing that a policeman knows in advance who is armed and dangerous.

Yet a criminal is far less likely to have his gun recorded in a computerized database than a law-abiding citizen is. Registered gun owners are among the most peaceful people in the country. There will never be a lack of excuses for collecting private information. Everybody is against children being "at risk" for child abuse or other dangers.

But there is no hard evidence that all the snooping done by agencies that sponsor "home visits" makes any real difference. The only time the right to privacy seems to matter is when people are talking about abortion.


07/23/99: Emotional orgies
07/20/99: What's politics all about?
07/16/99: Politically incorrect heroism
07/12/99: Cutting edge California retreats to old, failed ideas
07/07/99: A quagmire and a vision
07/02/99: The Fourth of July
06/29/99: "Urban sprawl" and liberal gall
06/18/99: A famous victory
06/14/99: A victory in Chicago
06/10/99: Mass shootings and mass hysteria
06/08/99: The other side of affirmative action
06/03/99: Childish labor laws
06/01/99: Demonizing for dollars
05/27/99: The real public service
05/24/99: Income, taxes and demagoguery
05/18/99: Random thoughts
05/14/99: Aborted knowledge
05/10/99: The new "fairness"
05/04/99: Holding parents responsible
05/03/99: Exit strategies
04/28/99: Tragedy and farce
04/26/99: Guilt and cop-outs
04/21/99: Choosing a college
04/16/99: When success fails
04/13/99: A photo-op foreign policy
04/09/99: Russia and the Serbs
04/06/99: Random thoughts
03/31/99: Irresponsible "experts"
03/29/99: Another Doleful prospect?
03/23/99: Random thoughts
03/22/99: Loving enemies
03/19/99: Naming names
03/15/99: Undermining the military
03/10/99: Joe DiMaggio -- icon of an era
03/02/99: Facts versus dogma on guns
03/01/99: Losing the cultural wars
02/22/99: "Saving" social security
02/18/99: Too many Ph.Ds?
02/8/99: A national disaster
02/8/99: Economic fallacies in the media: Part II
02/5/99: Why economists visit dentists so often
02/2/99: Warning: Good news
01/29/99: What is at stake?
01/26/99:Moral bankruptcy in the schools
01/22/99: Who is going to convict Santa Claus?
01/19/99: Seeing through the spin
01/13/99: A trial is a trial is a trial
01/11/99:Trials and tribulations
01/08/99: Rays of hope
01/04/99: Random thoughts
12/31/98: The President versus the presidency
12/29/98: The time is now!
12/23/98: World-class hypocrisy
12/21/98: The spreading corruption
12/17/98: Politically "contrite"
12/16/98: Polls and partisanship
12/14/98: The "non-profit" halo
12/11/98: Corruption and confusion
12/03/98: The health care "crisis"
11/30/98: Knowing what you are talking about
11/23/98: The impeachment legacy
11/23/98: Random thoughts
11/19/98: Tales out of bureaucracies
11/16/98: Scholarships based on scholarship
11/12/98: Forward march
11/09/98: Moral outrage
11/05/98: Will the Republicans ever learn?
11/02/98: A voter's duty
10/30/98: The poverty pimp's poem
10/29/98: Random thoughts on the election
10/27/98: "Partisan" and "unfair"
10/23/98: Ed-u-kai-tchun
10/21/98: McGwire, Maris and the Babe
10/16/98: Lightweight Boxer
10/14/98: A strange word
10/09/98: Impeachment standards
10/08/98: Alternatives to seriousness
10/07/98: Heredity, environment and talk
10/02/98: A much-needed guide
10/01/98: Starr's real crime
9/24/98: Costs and power
9/18/98: Are we sheep?
9/16/98: Judicial review
9/15/98: Hillary Rodham Crook?
9/14/98: Taking stock
9/11/98: Moment of truth
9/04/98: Random thoughts
8/31/98: The twilight of special prosecutors?
8/26/98: "Doing a good job"
8/24/98: America on trial?
8/19/98: Played for fools
8/17/98: A childish letter
8/11/98: Hiding behind a woman
8/07/98: A flying walrus in Washington?
8/03/98: "Affordability" strikes again
7/31/98: Random thoughts
7/27/98: Faith and mountains
7/24/98: Clinton in Wonderland
7/20/98: Where is black 'leadership' leading?
7/16/98: Do 'minorities' really have it that bad?
7/14/98: Race dialogue: same old stuff
7/10/98: Honest history
7/09/98: Dumb is dangerous
7/02/98: Gun-safety starts with
parental responsibility
6/30/98: When more is less
6/29/98: Are educators above the law?
6/26/98: Random Thoughts
6/24/98: An angry letter
6/22/98: Sixties sentimentalism
6/19/98:Dumbing down anti-trust
6/15/98: A changing of the guard?
6/11/98: Presidential privileges
6/8/98: Fast computers and slow antitrust
6/3/98: Can stalling backfire?
5/29/98: The insulation of the Left
5/25/98: Missing the point in the media
5/22/98: The lessons of Indonesia
5/20/98: Smart but silent
5/18/98: Israel, Clinton and character
5/14/98: Monica Lewinsky's choices
5/11/98: Random thoughts
5/7/98: Media obstruction of justice
5/4/98: Dangerous "safety"
5/1/98: Abolish Adolescence!
4/30/98: The naked truth
4/22/98: Playing fair and square
4/19/98: Bad teachers"
4/15/98: "Clinton in Africa "
4/13/98: "Bundling and unbundling "
4/9/98: "Rising or falling Starr "
4/6/98: "Was Clinton ‘vindicated'? "
3/26/98: "Diasters -- natural and political"
3/24/98: "A pattern of behavior"
3/22/98: Innocent explanations
3/19/98: Kathleen Willey and Anita Hill
3/17/98: Search and destroy
3/12/98: Media Circus versus Justice
3/6/98: Vindication
3/3/98: Cheap Shot Time
2/26/98: The Wrong Filter
2/24/98: Trial by Media
2/20/98: Dancing Around the Realities
2/19/98: A "Do Something" War?
2/12/98: Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric

©1999, Creators Syndicate