Saturday, May 20, 2006

Everybody's Watching...You

This is still a marketing blog, not a political one, but topics where the two areas intersect are fair game. So it is with the recent flap over the NSA searching for suspicious patterns in the phone records of Americans, which is even less shocking than the revelation that professional athletes sometimes chemically enhance their performance.

The fact is, we have very little privacy left, from either the public or private sector. Ever checked your credit report? (You may not want to.) What's in there may surprise you. And it isn't just the big three credit reporting agencies who have this information; almost anyone with a checkbook and a lick of creativity can get the information, including your insurance company.

Got any vices? Alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate almond fudge ice cream? Unless you exclusively pay with cash, your favorite retailer knows exactly what you buy and how often you buy it, and RFID technology will soon provide them with even more information. Once again, if your supermarket clerk knows this, anyone with capital and curiosity can find out.

Do you market a luxury item? Want to know who the wealthiest Americans are? Forget the old Forbes list. You can buy the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the one million most affluent households online. You can even buy lists of consumers based on their health status, hobbies, home value, and buying habits.

The U.S. government has access to all of that data and more. The government, of course, knows where you work, what you do there, where you live, how much money you make, and how many kids you have. You help them update their database every year sometime before April 16th. If you live in a place that has toll roads, the government even knows the route you drive to work and about what time you normally arrive and leave. They also know what's in your backyard (pool, trampoline, hot tub?), how often you use it, and how many people you use it with. (Google's tool limits how closely you can zoom in; the government's view is much closer.)

The government uses its own tools, and partners with the private sector. Ever wonder how the FBI knew so much about the 9/11 terrorists just days after the attack on the World Trade Center -- where they had eaten, rented cars, had lap dances, bought their plane tickets? They got it all from a little Arkansas company called Acxiom. Unfortunately, that little company knows a lot more about you than it does about protecting that information.

But back to the politics: none of this loss of privacy has been caused by George W. Bush. Nor, to be non-partisan, is it Bill Clinton's fault (though it may be partially Al Gore's, since, after all, he invented the Internet).

To anyone with a libertarian bone in their body, this complete lack of privacy is no doubt troubling. Perhaps we need new laws, or perhaps better technology to enable individuals to protect their privacy. But regardless, it is simply ludicrous to assert that government agencies obstensibly tasked with defending our safety and freedom shouldn't have access to the same information as someone wanting to sell us cars or mail out coupons for toothpaste.


Terms: NSA phone records, online privacy, Acxiom, credit reporting, lifestyle data

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