Sunday, October 12, 2008

Can Privacy Come Back?

In this interview at Computer World private investigator Steve Rambam argues that "Privacy is dead. Get over it. You can't put the genie back in the bottle." His argument seems to be based in large part on his own database, which supposedly contains
pretty much every American's name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, telephone number, personal relationships, businesses, motor vehicles, driver's licenses, bankruptcies, liens, judgments [etc...]

He uses that database, as well as advances in computer technology and changes in government policy to make the case that more and more information is becoming available about people, and that privacy is a thing of the (rapidly receding) past.

My belief is that Rambam is wrong. I'm willing to concede that the state of individual privacy right now is pretty grim (though I don't think it's dead). However, there is a substantial disconnect between observing that things are bad now, and concluding that they'll never get better in the future. Indeed, as my own contribution to putting Rambam's genie back in the bottle, I would like to present the following things people can do to use the law to help privacy:
1) Remember the FTC. While people generally have little success in suits alleging damages based exposure of their personal data, the FTC has broad enforcement authority to combat unfair and deceptive trade practices. That means that if a company isn't following their privacy policy, or if they're saying they value privacy while they actually sell your personal information to the highest bidder, a complaint to the FTC could be a way to deal with it.
2) Watch the EULAs. As I have written before (e.g., here) contract law in general, and abusive end user license agreements in particular present a serious threat to privacy. Thus, when someone asks you to click before continuing, read what it is that you're being asked to agree to and, if it's abusive, don't agree. In fact, not only should you refuse to agree, you should also complain. While generally consumer complaints are of questionable effectiveness, if a company is interested in its image, it can lead to changes in behavior (e.g., Google Chrome).
3) Know your rights. For example, the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act prohibits printing complete credit or debit card numbers on receipts. By being aware of their rights, consumers can know how to protect themselves and their privacy, either by enforcing their rights themselves (e.g., through a private suit) or though others (e.g., by bringing an FTC complaint).

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