Jewish World Review July 28, 1999 /15 Av, 5759
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
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
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
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
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05/10/99: The new "fairness"
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05/03/99: Exit strategies
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04/09/99: Russia and the Serbs
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01/26/99:Moral bankruptcy in the schools
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01/11/99:Trials and tribulations
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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
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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
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10/29/98: Random thoughts on the election
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10/21/98: McGwire, Maris and the Babe
10/20/98: MURDER IS MURDER!
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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?
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9/11/98: Moment of truth
9/04/98: Random thoughts
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8/26/98: "Doing a good job"
8/24/98: America on trial?
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8/17/98: A childish letter
8/11/98: Hiding behind a woman
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7/27/98: Faith and mountains
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7/14/98: Race dialogue: same old stuff
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7/02/98: Gun-safety starts with
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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"
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
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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
3/3/98: Cheap Shot Time
2/26/98: The Wrong Filter
2/24/98: Trial by Media
2/20/98: Dancing Around the Realities
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2/12/98: Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric
©1999, Creators Syndicate