The Big Squeeze on Americans’ Privacy

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The Los Angeles Times

Jamie Court, you beat me to it.

And I’m pretty ticked off about that.

My bean-spilling plans were already afoot. I’d lined up a couple of those Web services that for 20 or 30 or 50 bucks will “SNOOP, SPY and satisfy your curiosity about ANYONE, ANYTIME!” and “RUIN ANYONE with Top Secret Software!”

I was all set to plug in the names of the Assembly Banking Committee members who appear to have no problem at all putting you and me and our kids on the auction block. They killed a bill that would have shielded Californians’ privacy, telling telemarketers and businesses that if they want to get their mitts on our private financial information, then we the people, one at a time, would have to OK it first, in writing. I figured that if some legislators are willing to sell my
information without my knowing about it or approving it, then I’d get the goods on them and see how they liked it.

Then Court came along and beat me to it. He published the first four digits of several committee members’ Social Security numbers as a “wanted” poster on the Web site of his group, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

Were they mad? You haven’t heard screaming like that in the Capitol since Gray Davis opened last summer’s electricity bill.

Because he did it first, it’s Court who might be hauled off to jail, not me. Capitolistas are so angry about his performance politics that the CHP has been ordered to investigate and the Assembly speaker has designated a group of brow-furrowers to look into this. It’s called the Special Committee on Protocol, but it might as well be called the Special Committee for Don’t They Know We’re Special?

There are also rumblings that Court may have transgressed Article IV of the state Constitution. That makes it a felony to try to influence a legislator’s vote through intimidation, but do you think there’s an Article V about influencing a vote through donation? In your dreams.

I called Court to congratulate him, sort of, for getting the jump on me, and to tell him I might visit him in jail if it came to that. He laughed and said: “If I’d just sold [the legislators’] Social Security numbers instead of giving them away for free, it’d be OK. If I’d made money on it, that’d be OK by the principles they’re supporting. My mistake wasn’t publishing part of their Social Security numbers — it was not charging for all of them.”

Was it a stunt? Sure. Court has a new book out called “Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom — and What You Can Do About It.” It’s still only at about number 18,000-something on Amazon, so it’s not like it’s made him rich.

Did his gimmick work? You bet. Next to the sound of a check being torn out of a checkbook, that’s how you get a lot of politicians’ attention.

Court told me what he’ll be telling America today on the public radio program “Marketplace.” He’s also bought, via the Internet, the Social Security numbers and the home addresses and phone numbers of the U.S. attorney general and the head of the CIA. If he goes public with those, he might be arrested under the Patriot Act for intimidation. In that case, I said, I couldn’t visit him in jail because they probably wouldn’t tell me where he was being held, even if I paid for the info.

Americans’ privacy is feeling the Big Squeeze. From one side of the vise, the government is using the threat of terrorism as an excuse to do just about anything, from checking out the books we borrow from the library, to looking into what goes on under the paper gowns in the doctor’s office. (My reading of the fine print of the new medical privacy policy, HIPAA, is that if Washington believes the Republic will fall if it doesn’t find out what kind of birth control pills I take, Washington must be told.)

From the other side of the vise is commerce. Ours has become a dollar democracy, where every dollar we spend, or might spend, is a vote — a more influential one than the vote we cast in an election. As far as commerce is concerned, as citizens, we’re a nuisance, but as consumers, we’re a commodity, and as irresistible to business as an untapped oil well in Dick Cheney’s frontyard.

That’s why the prospect of a Patriot Act II — no court order needed for the FBI to tippy-toe into your phone or bank or computer or credit records — is as pointless as it is sinister. Why bother? Just convert the FBI into the FBI Inc., and, thanks to our invertebrate legislators, the G-men can sit at their home computers and buy all that information on the Internet.

There used to be some old war horse of a cliche that the human body, boiled down to its chemical elements, was worth about two bucks.

Nowadays the human body — boiled down to credit cards, bank accounts, fast-food preferences, cars of choice — is worth thousands in marketing information. That’s why all these corporations want your legislators to let them get to your personal data without your knowing it — and certainly without needing your permission.

The hundreds of millions of dollars that banks and insurance companies and financial outfits have spent on lobbying and political tithing is mere peanut shells — not even peanuts — compared to all that tempting, rich marketing information about you that they stand to get their hands on.

Is any politician out there smart enough to campaign on privacy, the great, cherished unlisted constitutional right to be unlisted? Don’t they read the papers? More than 2 million people a day — 2 million potential voters a day — have been signing up for the national “do not call” list to stop telemarketers from home-invasion-by-telephone. President Bush pledged during the campaign to make it a criminal offense to sell a Social Security number without the owner’s express consent. When was the last time you heard a sound bite about that?

I am so spooked by all of this that I am not relying on politicians to protect me. I am opening an account at the Bank of Posturepedic. And every time I hear the word “convenience,” I know I’m being taken. A “convenient” cherished-customer card may save me two bits on a bag of dog food, but it gives the store five bucks’ worth of free marketing data about my buying habits. I’ll take the savings, but I’ll keep my data, thank you. So I fill out those “preferred customer” cards with fake names, usually the names of famous killers. I just love it when the cashier says “Paper or plastic, Lizzie Borden?”

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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