What’s Private Anymore?

Slashdot links to this AP article on privacy.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – A landlord snooped on tenants to find out information about their finances. A woman repeatedly accessed her ex-boyfriend’s account after a difficult breakup. Another obtained her child’s father’s address so she could serve him court papers. All worked for Wisconsin’s largest utility, where employees routinely accessed confidential information about acquaintances, local celebrities and others from its massive customer database.

On my first visit to my doctor, I was asked to fill out a form that asked many questions. One of them was “Do you own a gun?” I answered “None of your business”. (It’s for the insurance company, my doctor informed me, meekly.)

“The vast majority of companies are doing very little to stop this widespread practice of snooping,” said Larry Ponemon, a privacy expert who founded The Ponemon Institute, a Traverse City, Mich.-based think tank. Jim Owen, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a lobbying association that represents utilities, disputed suggestions the problem was common in the industry.

“I am not aware of any other situation that has arisen in the utility sector,” he said.

Of course he isn’t.

Companies generally avoid talking about snooping or any measures they’ve taken to prevent it. Scott Reigstad, a spokesman for Madison, Wis.-based Alliant Energy, which has one million electric and 420,000 natural gas customers in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, said his company has safeguards in place to stop misuse but does not discuss them publicly.

“We haven’t had any issues that we’re aware of,” he said.

And what about straight forward, data-entry mistakes. You know. The kind that take about 13.7 billion years to get corrected?

Jay Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resources Center, said state regulators and lawmakers must step in if companies are not guarding their customer information responsibly. “Something needs to be done at the state level to make sure this is illegal,” he said.

Oh yeah. Let’s get the government involved. That’ll help.

Governmental agencies have also struggled with the problem. The IRS took 219 disciplinary actions, including firings and suspensions, against employees who browsed through confidential taxpayer information last year, according to the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Information. That was more than double the number the previous year.

Last month, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety said it disciplined two employees who accessed information on 400 residents from its driver’s license database. The agency did not say what the discipline was because it continues to investigate. It said the employees were looking for their own entertainment, not any criminal motives.

I’m not on the side of angels here – I’m being petulant, and I’m not sure that this technology (and information gathering) isn’t causing more crime than it’s solving. I think it would be nice if we could all have the benefits of our instant electronic access to information, cash, credit, records, you name it, without giving up our privacy, even in part. And I realize that since the fall of Adam, that has not been possible.

Pity. There was something positive in the fact that you could “Go west, young man”, and start over, new place, new name, no past following you. The second chance that situation allowed built this country, you know. Now, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, there are no second acts in America. The record follows you, for good and for ill.

For now, I’m going to stubbornly try to hang on to what little privacy I have left, holding a banner that says they can have my information when they can show me that their database is free from unauthorized access and also error free. 100%.

And good luck with that.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Personal, post-modernism

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