The Privacy Act of 1974, as amended, places a few restrictions on how the federal government can compile dossiers on Americans. It was passed in response to multiple scandals in which, for instance, former Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover would spy on Americans for his own purposes.
But does it go far enough? When the government can’t get the information on you that it wants because of the Privacy Act, it can always turn to a commercial data broker. And they know more about virtually everyone than anyone else, including the government itself.
On November 2, the cable network CNBC aired a two-hour special called “Big Brother, Big Business’ which explored the issues of privacy and technology which can be used to track people.
I don’t want to ruin the ending, so I’ll just say that the Liberty Coalition put a copy of the special up on Google Video, and invite you to watch for yourself and make up your own mind. See what the commercial data brokers have to say for themselves.
I will say, though, that some undeserved anti-corporate bias sneaked through the presentation. The problem is not just that companies are compiling data on people; this is actually a valuable and useful service. For instance, it actually helps cut down on the amount of uninteresting junk mail you receive.
Though there is a down side to commercial data mining: The company collecting information from you can figure things out about you which seem entirely unrelated to the information you give them. You might be pregnant, for instance, but not yet ready to tell anyone about it.
The most serious problem as I see it is that it’s too easy for the data to fall into the wrong hands. And as we’ve seen before in our history, all too frequently the wrong hands are the hands of the government. Once again, the government, not the corporation, is the root of the problem.