Is Privacy an Illusion?
by Heather Bussing and John SumserThis week we’re looking at data and privacy–how companies use your data, how HR will use data, what are your privacy rights, and the legal issues with collecting and using data. The legal information is generally based on US law, but the data collection information applies globally.
First, it’s important to understand that before you even log onto Facebook or Google, there is a tremendous amount of personal information that is public record and that is collected in your daily transactions.
The real estate you own, how much you paid for it, and the terms of your mortgage are all public records available at the recorder’s office and often online. These records may also show whether you are married, singe, or divorced based on how the title to the property is held. Other public records include the names of any business you own, along with what type of entity it is, and where it does business. Court records show who you have sued and who sued you. Some family law and criminal records are also public. So are tax liens, judgements, birth records, death records, and political party registration.
Other Information About You.
In addition to public records, there is information that you provide and information that an observer can collect about you. What you do in public is generally considered public. But information collected about you is neither public, nor exactly private.
When the barrista slides your gold Starbucks card, you tell Starbucks where you are, what you are drinking and eating, and how often. In exchange, they give you free drinks, which is nice.
You probably have loyalty cards for groceries, books, pharmacies, office supplies, bakeries, restaurants, airlines, car rentals and hotels.
All loyalty cards are designed to collect information about what you buy, where you spend, how often you buy it, when you change brands, and how much you spend.
Recently, Target’s data collection efforts were exposed when it figured out a teen was pregnant before her family did. They didn’t appreciate getting the news from Target via coupons for cribs and baby clothes.
When you go into any public building, store or mall, there are surveillance cameras watching you shop, walk, consider items, yell at your kids . . . .
There are cameras at stop lights to see if you run the light, cameras at toll boths, in parking lots and attached to buildings.If you are too late on the yellow, someone looks up your license plate, name and address, and sends you a ticket along with a lovely invitation to talk to a judge.
Your bank and credit card companies also watch where you go, what you are spending money on, and keep track of patterns. They claim they are protecting you and preventing fraud. It’s mostly about preventing their own losses. They are also trying to figure out if you are having financial trouble, so they can adjust spending limits before you are broke and can’t pay them, or worse, declare bankruptcy.
Credit card issuers also use your spending habits and payment records to figure out which of their “partners” should send you advertisements and information.
Every cell phone behaves like a GPS tracking device. It’s part of how you check-in on Four Square. So your phone company can figure out where you are, or at least where your phone is, at any moment and follow your every move. They also know who you talk to, for how long and on what days.
(In the next piece, we’ll cover the information that gets collected when your phone is also connected to the internet.)
Your license plate tells everyone what state you are from, and depending on whether you have special plates, whether you work for the government, whether you are a veteran, and what causes you support. If you have a GPS in the car, it will tell the rental company or service provider exactly where you are, how you got there and where you go afterwards. Many cars are also equipped with onboard help systems that track your location. The year, make and model also tell people about your taste and finances. Depending on the size, number of seats and accessories attached, a casual observer can learn how much you care about brand and image, whether you have kids and pets, what sports you like, whether you park in a garage or outside and what the birds have been eating lately.
Your Face and Appearance
It is perfectly legal to take pictures of people in public places. If someone uses those pictures for commercial purposes, they should at least get your permission and probably compensate you. But anyone can take your picture and put it online for others to see where you are, what you are doing, and with whom.
The clothes, shoes and jewelry you wear tell people information about what you do, whether you are married, your finances, and how much you care about fashion.
Is Privacy an Illusion?
So even before Facebook and Google start counting clicks, a tremendous amount of information that gives intimate details of your life is being collected, stored, and used.
We have this illusion that each of these bits of information is separate, that the companies collecting the information don’t share it. So we are the only ones who really have the whole picture about what our lives are like. But it’s an illusion.
This information is sold, traded and transferred among companies. Many mergers and acquisitions are really about acquiring a company’s data rather than its product or business.
The fact that information exists somewhere means that the government, police, courts, ex-spouse or an opponents in a lawsuit can probably get the information. A “reasonable suspicion” is all it takes for a search warrant in a criminal investigation. “May lead to the discovery of admissible evidence” is all it takes for a subpoena.
If you really want privacy, you’ll have to move to a remote place, never spend money, give up traveling, driving, and using phones or computers.
Maybe the better approach is to understand how the information about you is collected and used. That way you can decide what is and isn’t important to you.
Next, we’ll look at how information is collected and used online.