Privacy under attack, but does anybody care?

Bob Sullivan at MSNBC has started a 6-part special report called “Privacy Lost”, examining the erosion of American’s privacy and the increasing store of personal data being collected.

Part one asks, “Privacy is under attack, but does anybody care?” First, Sullivan reminds us that people often say they want privacy, but often act as if they don’t:

When pollsters ask Americans about privacy, most say they are concerned about losing it. An MSNBC.com survey, which will be covered in detail on Tuesday, found an overwhelming pessimism about privacy, with 60 percent of respondents saying they feel their privacy is “slipping away, and that bothers me.”

But people say one thing and do another.

Only a tiny fraction of Americans – 7 percent, according to a recent survey by The Ponemon Institute – change any behaviors in an effort to preserve their privacy. Few people turn down a discount at toll booths to avoid using the EZ-Pass system that can track automobile movements.

And few turn down supermarket loyalty cards. Carnegie Mellon privacy economist Alessandro Acquisti has run a series of tests that reveal people will surrender personal information like Social Security numbers just to get their hands on a measly 50-cents-off coupon.

But, of course, many do pay attention when laptops full of personal information go missing, or a Congressman’s IM chat sessions are made public, or when Choicepoint sells data to identity thieves.

Sullivan covers a lot of other territory to help frame this important discussion, and his closing section summarizes it (and its importance) well:

The debate over how much privacy we are willing to give up never occurred. When did consumers consent to give their entire bill-paying histories to credit bureaus, their address histories to a company like ChoicePoint, or their face, flying habits and telephone records to the federal government? It seems our privacy has been slipping away — 1s and 0s at a time — while we were busy doing other things.

Our intent in this week-long series is to invite readers into such a debate.

Some might consider the invitation posthumous, delivered only after our privacy has died. Sun’s founder and CEO Scott McNealy famously said in 1999 that people “have no privacy – get over it.” But privacy is not a currency. It is much more like health or dignity or well-being; a source of anxiety when weak and a source of quiet satisfaction when strong.

Perhaps it’s naïve in these dangerous times to believe you can keep secrets anymore – your travels, your e-mail, your purchasing history us readily available to law enforcement officials and others. But everyone has secrets they don’t want everyone else to know, and it’s never too late to begin a discussion about how Americans’ right to privacy can be protected.

[via 27B Stroke 6]

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