Seeking Privacy in the Digital Age

Oct. 26, 2001
By Marc Zawel
Sun Senior Writer

Robert Gellman, a privacy and information policy consultant in Washington, D.C., traveled to Ithaca yesterday afternoon to give a lecture titled “Do We Have Any Privacy? Do We Even Know What It Is?” in Uris Hall Auditorium.

In attendance were approximately 50 students, faculty and local activists.

Gellman, a graduate of Yale Law School, served for 17 years as chief counsel to the Subcommittee on Government Information in the House of Representatives. His responsibilities on the subcommittee included privacy — especially of health records — and freedom of information. He also served as a member of the Department of Health and Human Service’s National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics from 1996 to 2000.

“People are doing things every day that show a lack of a desire to protect their privacy,” Gellman said yesterday.

Ordinary actions, ranging from using a frequent shoppers card at a supermarket, to using a library card or accepting “cookies” on the Internet have the capacity to threaten our privacy, he said.

These relatively innocent actions allow businesses to create an “incredible profile on our habits and lifestyles,” Gellman added.

Gellman continued by explaining why he felt that today’s consumers are not aware that their privacy is being threatened. “Today’s consumers should not be asking, ‘Why do I get junkmail?’ We should be asking, ‘Why did I get this particular piece of junkmail?'”

Generally, Americans fall into three categories of privacy awareness, he said. The first, “privacy fundamentalists,” care a great deal about privacy and protecting it. On the other end of the spectrum are the “privacy indifferent” consumers, who care very little about their own privacy.

Both of these groups constitute a relatively small portion of the population compared to the “privacy pragmatists,” who are willing to exchange some of their privacy in return for something advantageous, such as supermarket discounts or the convenience of E-ZPass, the system for quick toll payment on highways in the Northeast.

Historically, the United States has not had many federal laws that protect citizens’ privacy. Gellman described federal legislation as a “moving target” that usually responds to the concerns of Congress.

For example, in 1988, Congress passed the Video Privacy Protection Bill after a Washington journalist uncovered which home videos had been rented by Judge Robert H. Bork, an unsuccessful Supreme Court nominee.

Employment records, federal insurance records, marketing and purchasing habits and the Internet continue to be relatively unmonitored by the federal government, allowing corporations and businesses to set their own privacy policies, Gellman said.

The government’s hands-off stance on privacy protection has resulted in many recent lawsuits. In one such lawsuit, CVS Pharmacy was found to have sold patient information to large drug manufacturers. In a defense brief, CVS claimed to have no duty of confidentiality to its patients, Gellman recalled.

Gellman outlined three important ways consumers can protect their privacy today. First, consumers should treat personal information like money. “Every time we need to give up personal info, we should ask, ‘Are we getting anything back of significant value?'”

Next, as consumers, people should always be asking questions when personal data is requested by companies. “We should ask, ‘Where is this information going, and what will it be used for?'” If a company is not willing to divulge this information, consumers should be suspicious of how their personal information is going to be used, he said.

Finally, consumers can fight back. According to Gellman, they should “vote with their wallets.” Smart consumers will only do business with companies who will protect privacy. Consumers should do what they need to do to protect their personal information, even if that means paying cash to avoid leaving an electronic record, or using pseudonyms on frequent shopper card applications.

“It’s a personal choice,” Gellman concluded. “It’s up to you. You have to recognize that in everything you do, you are creating a record that someone can access later on.”

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