"Brave New World" has arrived.
The world has been exercised lately over the revelation that the top U.S. spy agency has been spying – purportedly directed against Al Qaeda-related terror groups – by monitoring world-wide electronic traffic. This was not much of a surprise, but it was disturbing to many. In this note, we will let that go for now and deal first with another, more insidious and dangerous, form of spying: the commercial world has developed a system of customer data collection and sharing that makes the details of our lives a commodity to be sold for profit. The age of mass identity theft and potentially limitless electronic crime, which could bring any of us to financial ruin in a flash, is here, now.
The U.S. government's program of electronic surveillance of communications – offensive as it is – has at least the saving point of being directed against potential terrorist activity. Far more dangerous is the commercial spying and unauthorized profiling of ordinary citizens online. It has reached proportions that clearly constitute invasion of individual privacy.
Picture this: You're walking downtown, dipping into odd shops. After a while you get a feeling that someone is following you. You look around and notice a shifty-eyed man with a notebook. He appears to be jotting down something every time you enter a store, and you see him in every store you go into, writing rapidly in his book. You accost him and discover that he's been hired to follow you, to note down which stores you enter, and once inside, which items interest you and which don't, and above all precisely what you buy. When you ask him why he's doing this, he tells you that the information on you is sold to advertisers for a good profit. What's more, he's been hired permanently, just to track you. He'll be behind you wherever you go, whatever you do. What would you think about this? My guess is you'd see a lawyer, who would probably succeed in getting a court injunction to prevent this stalker from continuing to harass you. It's a clear case of invasion of your privacy.
Guess what. If you have ordinary, contemporary financial habits, this disgusting stalker is in fact following you every day. Do you have store discount cards? Do you use a credit or debit card? Do you buy things on the internet? Do you go to concerts or other events? Pay for it with plastic? Do you use a search engine? Or simply visit a commercial web site? When the clerk asks for your phone number or area code at the check-out stand, do you give it? In all these cases, everything you buy and information about where you've been is tracked and recorded in detail by electronic stalkers, automated computer programs that collect this personal information about your presumed habits and sell it for profit to advertising agencies that specialize in focusing advertising on you. Detailed information about what you do, what you check out on the web, what you eat or like, is gathered and sold without your knowledge, so that other businesses may send you "focused" junk mail, or show you internet ads geared to your presumed age or interests. It won't be long before before cable TV will be "effectivized" in this way; those of us over 60 won't be seeing anything but ads for adult diapers and the like. This charting of our habits and preferences amounts to stalking and invasion of privacy as surely as following you around on the street, in fact it's far more invasive because the electronic stalkers have the ability to find far more than the clown with the notebook.
And receiving focused advertising is not the worst danger from these practices. The unofficial and unaccountable data banks that hold such snooped information about you and your financial habits, including social security numbers, credit card and bank accounts, are there for one purpose: to sell your data to anyone who will pay for it. A health insurance company may find out how many bottles of hooch or packs of cigarettes you bought last year. Credit companies, banks, and the IRS can get detailed information on your financial affairs. If the current trend continues without effective opposition, it won't be long before anyone can order up personal info on anyone else for a few bucks. You are being undressed and laid bare by these modern-day stalkers, and Congress has not lifted a finger to stop these practices. Of course we know that Congress is essentially out of business; it's hard to be optimistic about getting help there against this scourge.
Help may more likely come from the federal courts. I believe the law that can protect us against these practices already exist in the U.S. Constitution. The 4th Amendment to the Constitution reads in part: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,..." This doesn't just guarantee security from searches by authorities, like the police; it means safety from intrusive searches by anyone. The federal courts have based a number of privacy-guarding decisions on this "privacy clause," and my guess is that a well-prepared case against the electronic stalkers would have a good chance of succeeding in stopping their practices cold. But it's disturbing that the Supreme Court has so far declined – most recently in the spring of this year – to review any case that would allow (or force) the Court to clarify privacy rights on the web.
In spite of the dysfunctional state of our current Congress, my advice is to flood Congress with demands to put a stop to commercial electronic snooping practices, because the Supreme Court is notoriously "flexible" (or inconsistent) when it comes to interpreting the Constitution. Congress must adopt specific law to outlaw the recording of the identities of store or internet customers or web site visitors without express permission by the customer/visitor. "Express" here means that the customer must make a positive choice, after clearly being shown the consequences of the choice – including which firms are permitted to use the data and for what – to permit such recording. The default condition must always be refusal. Similarly, any new use of such data must be specifically permitted by the customer, who must also have a right to free access to the collected data and to the history of the use of the data. In addition, no business can require customers to reveal their name, address, or other contact information beyond what is specifically needed to complete the transaction.
In the meantime, look for anti-virus programs that have a "do-not-track" feature; they may help when browsing the web. I see this matter as very urgent; it is important to pressure our representatives in Congress quickly and firmly. We have already allowed these practices to go too far, and they must be reversed. My hope is that if provisions such as the above are passed into law, few Americans would be foolish enough to permit any third party to traffic in information about their private affairs, and the current practices will become just a bad memory.