Getting an unlisted phone number and erecting a high fence used to ensure some privacy. However, keeping others from peering into the day-to-day dealings of your personal life is becoming harder in the electronic age, cautions Eugene Spafford, associate professor of computer sciences, Purdue University. "One big problem with privacy is that the information collected for one purpose is often used for something else. making it difficult for consumers to control what information is kept on them and who has access to that information. Many consumers are unaware that, merely by using a credit or check-cashing card, entering a raffle, or subscribing to a magazine, they are providing personal information that can be sold to marketers and distributed to data bases throughout the world."
Details on personal preferences and interests also may be gleaned from electronic sources, such as the World Wide Web. "People using the network should understand that the sites they visit and download things from make a record that may or may not be traced back to them. This is not protected, as when you check things out of the library."
Other types of personal information--such as Social Security, credit card, or bank account numbers--may become more difficult to contain as electronic advances make it easier to copy, combine, and transport such data. Spurring this collection of data are a number of large firms dedicated to constructing and keeping lists that can be sold to advertisers and marketers. Such companies make it profitable for businesses and organizations, even at a local level, to provide information they collect on consumers' spending habits, preferences, and income.
"Though most people feel that they have nothing to hide, they probably aren't being imaginative enough about how the information can be used against them," Spafford points out. "Imagine, for example, if your employer or health insurance company was able to look at your buying history to see if you had purchased cigarette or alcohol in the past five years. Though such abuses have not been reported to date, we don't have regulations in place to prevent such actions."
One solution is to call for the...