THE MAGAZINE

Private No More

By Sherry L. Harowitz

Listening recently to Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) explain how the government is protecting privacy in the United States, I was reminded of my college logic class, where we learned about syllogisms: All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Bond was speaking on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer about the National Security Agency’s phone-record collection program, and he said that government agencies “meticulously keep the privacy of American citizens protected to the fullest extent of the law.”

That sounds pretty comforting. Just one problem. Shortly before making that statement, Bond had helpfully explained that business records, including a person’s phone records, have no privacy protection under the law.

Therefore, being protected to the fullest extent of the law means not being protected at all. It doesn’t sound quite as comforting put that way. Logic can be a bear.

But it’s no use denying the reality. This is the information age, not the privacy age. And the same lack of protection applies not just to phone records, but to credit card records, ATM records, and a host of other transactions that you probably thought were protected. Sure, Congress has passed some laws purporting to protect consumer privacy, but they generally contain loopholes big enough for government and business marketeers to drive truckloads of your data through.

Your first clue that privacy was waning, by the way, was the emergence of privacy-protection-officer positions within the government. When we had privacy, we didn’t need these officials. They are now there to assure you that you are being protected to the fullest extent of the law.

While the phone-record-collection program was being revealed, highlighting the lack of legal protection for business records containing our personal transactions, President Bush announced the formation of a task force to examine what can be done about identity theft, which often begins with the misuse of these same types of records.

Nothing says “Let’s get this problem solved” like the formation of a task force.

The task force has six months to come up with findings. Its members can use the time to read the dozens of articles that already explain the problem and the possible solutions, including bills pending in Congress that could improve privacy but are stalled because they might impede business marketing efforts.

I’ll spare you the suspense. The task force will conclude that we should all be more careful about who we give our personal data to. Unfortunately, the law says we don’t have the right to keep businesses from sharing our data or government from taking it.

If we really want being protected “to the fullest extent of the law” to mean anything, we’ve first got to get tougher laws. Otherwise, privacy, like Socrates, will exist only in the history books.

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