I’d be a fool to include my Social Security number in this article: doing so would leave me vulnerable to all manner of credit fraud, scams, and even criminal arrest. All of this would surely happen because a few bad people would read the article, write down my SSN, and pretend to be me.
We know a lot more about the use and abuse of SSNs today than we did back in 2002. That was the year the California state legislature passed SB 1386, the first U.S. law requiring that consumers be notified when computer systems holding their personal information are “breached” or that information is otherwise compromised. Because of SB 1386, we learned in 2005 that ChoicePoint–a company most Americans had never heard of–had somehow sold detailed credit histories on more than 163,000 consumers directly to identity thieves (more than 800 people suffered direct losses as a result). And in 2007, we learned that identity thieves had broken into the computer systems of the discount retailer TJX and stolen more than 45 million credit-card numbers.
We’ve also learned that governments are equally bad at securing personal information, as demonstrated by the half-million records breached at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, the eight million records reportedly exposed at the Virginia Department of Health Professions, and the 26.5 million records stolen (along with a laptop and portable hard drive) from a work-from-home employee of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
All these cases, and many more, paint a disturbing picture of what is really threatening privacy in America today.
Privacy matters. Data privacy protects us from electronic crimes of opportunity–identity theft, stalking, even little crimes like spam. Privacy gives us the right to meet and speak confidentially with others–a right that’s crucial for democracy, which requires places for political ideas to grow and mature. Absolute privacy, also known as solitude, gives us to space to grow as individuals. Who could learn to write, draw, or otherwise create if every action, step, and misstep were captured, immortalized, and evaluated? And the ability to conduct transactions in privacy protects us from both legal and illegal discrimination.
Until recently, people who wanted to preserve their privacy were urged to “opt out” or abstain from some aspects of modern society. Concerned about having your purchases tracked by a credit-card company? Use cash. Concerned that E-ZPass records might be used against you in a lawsuit? Throw coins at that toll booth. Don’t want to show your ID at the airport? Drive. Don’t want your location tracked minute by minute? Turn off your cell phone. And be in a minority: faced with the choice of convenience or privacy, Americans have overwhelmingly chosen the former. Companies like TJX haven’t even suffered from allowing their customers’ personal data to be leaked.
Now, however, abstinence no longer guarantees privacy. Of course, it never really did. But until the past two decades it was always possible to keep some private information out of circulation. Today, although you can avoid the supermarket savings card, the market will still capture your face with its video cameras. You can use cash, but large cash transactions are reported to the federal government. You can try to live without the Internet–but you’ll be marginalized. Worse, you won’t be able to participate in the public debate about how your privacy is wasting away–because that debate is happening online. And no matter what you do, it won’t prevent your information from being stored in commercial networked systems.