Nineteen eighty-four has come and gone. Big Brother is still watching you, however, even all these years later. Thanks in large part to computerization, your private life is an open book -- now more than ever.
From a technological perspective, the features of this revolution are mind-boggling -- instant or near-instant access to any available information. For private citizens, this means access via their cable company or phone company to thousands of television shows, games, records, phone calls/video conferencing calls, libraries, news programs, catalogs. . . the list goes on and on. For businesses, information technology provides the opportunity for managers to add value and gain competitive advantage through dramatic cutbacks in the cost of acquiring, storing, processing, retrieving and transmitting time-sensitive business information.
Yet, despite all the potential benefits of these advances in information technology, they unfortunately offer a darker side. Many individuals who embrace the principle of personal freedom believe that the information age is assisting Big Brother and his associates tremendously in their quest to control personal information. Consequently, privacy has emerged as a central topic of discussion throughout the world.
Back in 1994, I started the Privacy Newsletter to assist consumers concerned with personal freedom and personal privacy. In every issue, I've offered a wealth of specialized information that privacy seekers cannot obtain from any single newspaper, magazine, radio program, television show or computer database.
Yet before my publication, individuals concerned with privacy have managed to get along without a wholly consumer-oriented privacy source. How did they do it? Essentially, they safeguarded their personal information using common sense. They used cash for discrete transactions; they held truly private conversations (meaning in person rather than by telephone, fax, modem or video communications); they went to private doctors rather than hospitals for routine examinations. However, with the trend toward a cashless society. . . with the trend toward telecommunications. . . with the trend toward clinics and hospitals with shared information systems and medical reporting bureaus. . . and most of all with the trend toward computerization of almost every quantifiable and qualifiable action, individuals can no longer feasibly control the collection, processing, storage, retrieval or dissemination of what they consider their personal information. Consumers have to use more than common sense to minimize Big Brother's invasion. They need information, and they need advice. They need to know what laws protect them and what laws do not. They want to know how other people have succeeded in achieving personal freedom. And most of all, they want to keep an edge on Big Brother and his associates by staying on top of developments. For after all, isn't protecting your privacy a cat-and-mouse game anyway?
If you have something to hide -- and most of us do -- then they will need good, solid practical solutions that will help them increase their privacy.
You might wish to protect yourself from nosy employers, co-workers, neighbors, stalkers, hackers, politicians or assorted low-lives who have no respect for your privacy. Since we all need some breathing space, regardless of how much we are loved by another, we must learn techniques to keep things private from even our most loved ones.
While there are many sophisticated methods to protect your privacy, the truth is that if you incorporate a few general strategies into your everyday behavior, you can win the war against the privacy invaders.
So without further ado, join me now, as we begin our journey back to a missing portion of the Old Testament -- the Ten Commandments of Privacy!
1. Thou shalt keep sensitive information private.
Even in today's computer age, you control 90% of what you want most people to know about you. While it is true that your name, address, telephone number, social security number and other personal information are floating around in thousands -- if not hundreds of thousands -- of databases, most snoops don't need to check your background formally because they know that most targets are pleased to volunteer sensitive information. While there are times when you have to divulge personal information (credit card applications, insurance applications, etc.), insist that the people who receive this information keep it confidential. Have them agree in writing that personal information obtained for one purpose will not be used for another purpose without your prior consent. The best strategy is to keep people on a need-to-know basis.
2. Thou shalt pay in cash whenever possible.
Using cash can protect your financial privacy. Cash is preferable to money orders, which are preferable to personal cheques, which are in turn preferable to credit cards. Even though most countries are placing serial numbers on currency, cash is difficult to trace, unlike cheques. It's like a trail of rice. It leads back home. The Government and your bank can put together a dossier of almost any aspect of your life. While money orders are also recorded, they are recorded under the name of the issuer, not the purchaser; so your transaction is lost in the shuffle. While credit card purchases are the best from a security point of view, they sacrifice privacy, since most credit card companies sell cardholders' spending habits unless the cardholders specifically request otherwise. And watch out for those mobile card readers...don't let it out of your sight. If a waiter or barman or whoever walks off with it stop them and take your card out of the machine. Before you know it there will be thirty cloned versions of your card hitting the ATMs
3. Thou shalt guard thy social security number and other identification numbers with thy life.
The SSN has turned into a de facto national identifier, as have driver's license numbers (which are the same as the SSNs in many counties), telephone numbers and passport numbers. The best strategy is to provide alternate identification numbers and never write your social security number on cheques or credit card receipts.
6. Thou shalt inspect thy credit, medical and other personal information files often.
7. Thou shalt be circumspect in thy computer affairs.
like PGP [Pretty Good Privacy], developed by Phil Zimmerman).