Privacy in the Information Age
Imagine a small plastic card that holds all manner of information about you on a tiny memory chip (芯片): your date of birth, Social Security Number, credit and medical histories. And suppose the same card lets you drive a car, get medicine, get cash from machines, pay parking tickets, and collect government benefits.
One version of this so-called smart card is already in use. Some insurance companies issue medical history cards of customers, who need them to get medicine. This type of technology evolves out of convenience, says Evan Hendricks (伊万·亨德里克斯), editor of the Privacy Times (《私密时代》) newspaper, but "the dark side is that landlords, employers, and insurance companies could say we won't do business with you unless you show us your card."
Personal information gets harder to protect as more companies and government agencies build computerized databases (数据库) that are easily linked. "You can go from one database to another the way people go from one bar to another," says Hendricks. "The information superhighway will probably be developed by corporations, but the government is always willing to associate itself with these things. Companies develop databases to better target customers and then the government uses these databases for investigating crimes."
According to writer Simson L. Garfinkel (辛姆森·L. 加芬克尔), the database trend started with Ronald Reagan's stories of people on welfare cheating the government. "It was called Operation Match (匹配行动)," says a privacy expert, "and it matched databases of people who owed money to the government with other databases of people who received money from the government. Operation Match went after government employees who had not paid back student loans the government had given them for college, and welfare clients with large unreported incomes."
Saving the public from cheats and criminals has been an effective excuse for cutting back everyone's personal privacy. The government has been pressing for computer makers to include a special chip in their machines to allow police agencies to listen to electronic communications. The administration claims that failing to do so would be begging terrorists and criminals to plot together via the information superhighway.
That may still seem like something from a spy movie; more troubling is the growing ease with which everyday information can be accessed. Take the computerization of medical records. As one writer points out, "your video renting habits are better protected by law than your medical records." That's because there's more money in your medical records. A privacy expert says insurance companies generate "lists of individuals with certain kinds of medical problems and then turn around and sell those lists to medicine companies and other businesses."
Medical records are used to make a whole host of decisions about you that aren't related to your health. According to a 1991 government report, "50 percent of employers regularly use medical record information for hiring and promotion purposes. Of those who use this information, nearly 20 percent… do not inform their employees that their medical records have been used for such purposes." One company won't hire smokers, and another fired an employee after finding out he drank heavily at parties.
Employers and landlords often buy this information from companies that are in the business of creating data profiles. Besides criminal history, workers' insurance claims, and civil court records, one of their core products is credit information, which isn't always accurate. One of the country's largest credit bureaus paid out a huge amount of money a few years ago after settling a court case filed by 19 states claiming the company's reports were full of errors.
But the biggest information gatherer of them all is the Department of Motor Vehicles (汽车管理部门), or DMV, of each state, according to Garfinkel. "The DMV is a one-stop shop for state agencies that want to reach out and affect our lives," he writes. Given the existing system, which links together all 51 U.S. motor vehicle agencies, "no other state agency tracks the movement of people more accurately."
Nor is DMV data used solely for matters related to driving. "The state of Oregon (俄勒冈州) has 109 different offenses that can result in the temporary loss of a driver's license; 50 of them have nothing at all to do with driving," writes Garfinkel. Residents of the state of Wisconsin (威斯康星州), he notes, can lose their license for not paying library fines, neglecting to shovel snow away from the walk in front of their house, or failing to trim a tree whose branches hang over a neighbor's property. In the state of Kentucky (肯塔基州), students who drop out of school, have nine or more absences without being excused, or whose grades are below a given standard, lose their driving privileges "unless they can prove family hardship".
It's hard to avoid being seen on the DMV computer screens, but there are ways to keep a low profile in other areas. One health official recommends that when you sign a medical form you change it to make it clear "that you do not consent to having information re-released or sold to a second party without your direct, written consent".
Lots of other advice is available in publications listed in the Whole Earth Review (《全球评论》)(Fall 1993). Two of the most intriguing books on the list are Privacy for Sale (《出卖隐私》) by Jeffrey Rothfeder (杰弗里·罗斯费德) and Your Right to Privacy (《你的隐私权》)by Evan Hendricks of Privacy Times newsletter. Another well-known and useful periodical is the monthly Privacy Journal (《隐私月报》).