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Private Lives Lost Via Computer


A LITTLE more than a decade ago, David Burnham, a reporter for The New York Times, published "The Rise of the Computer State," a disturbing tale of how Americans are systematically losing their privacy as aspects of their lives are indexed and tabulated on government and private computer systems.

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Now Jeffrey Rothfeder, a former editor at Business Week, has returned to the scene of the crime in "Privacy For Sale: How Computerization Has Made Everyone's Private Life an Open Secret." In the past 10 years, the situation has only gotten worse. And despite being burned by invasion of privacy themselves, neither Congress nor the White House will pass legislation that would reverse the trend.

Rothfeder made headlines several years ago when he obtained and published the credit report for Vice President Dan Quayle. A summary of that report, as well as detailed information about CBS anchorman Dan Rather's personal finances, is reprinted in "Privacy For Sale."

Although all the juicy information is X'ed out, its still an invasion of Quayle's and Rather's privacy. And that's just the point, argues Rothfeder: Everyone, even people in positions of power who go to great lengths to keep such information private, is subject to "data rape."

Rothfeder's main tool of inquiry is the "super bureau" - information brokers who tap into the large credit databanks of companies like TRW or Trans Union and resell the records to virtually anyone with a few hundred dollars. Frequently credit profiles are augmented with information from databanks containing employment history, unlisted phone numbers, medical records, driving records, social security withholdings, and, occasionally, reports from private investigators.

"Privacy For Sale" paints a disturbing picture of a vast info-underground, buying and selling personal information as if it were cocaine. And indeed, on many a street corner in New York City, $10 buys a phone call to anywhere in the world for an unlimited amount of time, made possible by the magic of stolen telephone credit-card numbers. But there's more, says Rothfeder: Whole networks have sprung up in the past few years with the sole purpose of stealing the credit histories, social-security numbers, an d entire identities of unsuspecting victims and reselling them to illegal aliens.

Rothfeder's formulaic book follows a pattern well-developed by others: He tells a "horror story" of a person whose life was destroyed by a database that had been tapped by unauthorized users, he shows how systematic errors and the release of personal information has become a fact of life, and then he shows why the political will is lacking to make any changes to a system that nearly everyone acknowledges is out of control.

Most disturbing about today's federal information and privacy policy is that there isn't any. Videotape rental stores are legally forbidden from disclosing a customer's rental records without a court order, yet no law forbids insurance companies from disclosing the fact that a person is receiving treatment for AIDS, drug addiction, or depression.

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Often the lies are more damaging than the truth. As countless victims of credit-card fraud know, it is much easier for a department store to tell one of the national databanks that you are a deadbeat than it is for you to clear your name. Even if you manage to correct your entry in TRW's computer, you still have Trans Union's and Equifax's systems to worry about, countless smaller systems, and information brokers. As a result, erroneous data have a way of reappearing months or years after facts have been


Even scarier, writes Rothfeder, is the sorry state of law enforcement databases. More prone to error than commercial systems, a mismatch in one of these could result in your being thrown to the ground by a well-meaning but over-aggressive policeman.

Sadly, Rothfeder spends only two pages telling readers how to protect themselves. "Privacy For Sale" advises the reader to "get a copy of your credit report often," then inexplicably fails to give readers a telephone number or an address to aid in this quest. Although Rothfeder briefly mentions the fact that many banks sell lists of their customers with information such as disposable income and spending habits - gleaned from the payee and memo field of written checks - he fails to mention companies like National Demographics and Lifestyles, which tabulate the intrusive questions about family size and income asked on many product warrantee cards and resell the information for target marketing.

"Privacy For Sale" is a troubling book that raises more questions than it answers. It will leave many Americans wishing they lived in some European countries or Canada - where there are stringent, actively enforced laws designed to protect personal privacy.

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