1997 ASIS Mid-Year Meeting Preview
Moses Meets Big Brother: The Ten Commandments of Privacy
by John Featherman
© 1997 Newsletter Publishing Company

Nineteen eighty-four has come and gone. Big Brother is still watching you, however, even 13 years later. Thanks in large part to computerization, your private life is an open book -- now more than ever.

The information revolution is rapidly transforming the way people live. Recent developments in information technology have made it possible to bring news, entertainment and communication right into every living room or boardroom in the world. Consequently, the world has become a marketplace for information.

From a technological perspective, the features of this revolution are mind-boggling -- instant or near-instant access to any available information. For private citizens, this means access via their cable company or phone company to thousands of television shows, games, records, phone calls/video conferencing calls, libraries, news programs, catalogs. . . the list goes on and on. For businesses, information technology provides the opportunity for managers to add value and gain competitive advantage through dramatic cutbacks in the cost of acquiring, storing, processing, retrieving and transmitting time-sensitive business information.

Yet, despite all the potential benefits of these advances in information technology, they unfortunately offer a darker side. Many individuals who embrace the principle of personal freedom believe that the information age is assisting Big Brother and his associates tremendously in their quest to control personal information. Consequently, privacy has emerged as a central topic of discussion throughout the world.

Back in 1994, I started the Privacy Newsletter to assist consumers concerned with personal freedom and personal privacy. In every issue, I've offered a wealth of specialized information that privacy seekers cannot obtain from any single newspaper, magazine, radio program, television show or computer database.

Yet before my publication, individuals concerned with privacy have managed to get along without a wholly consumer-oriented privacy source. How did they do it? Essentially, they safeguarded their personal information using common sense. They used cash for discrete transactions; they held truly private conversations (meaning in person rather than by telephone, fax, modem or video communications); they went to private doctors rather than hospitals for routine examinations. However, with the trend toward a cashless society. . . with the trend toward telecommunications. . . with the trend toward clinics and hospitals with shared information systems and medical reporting bureaus. . . and most of all with the trend toward computerization of almost every quantifiable and qualifiable action, individuals can no longer feasibly control the collection, processing, storage, retrieval or dissemination of what they consider their personal information. Consumers have to use more than common sense to minimize Big Brother's invasion. They need information, and they need advice. They need to know what laws protect them and what laws do not. They want to know how other people have succeeded in achieving personal freedom. And most of all, they want to keep an edge on Big Brother and his associates by staying on top of developments. For after all, isn't protecting your privacy a cat-and-mouse game anyway?

Your job -- as librarians, information scientists and managers -- is partially to help your clients learn how to protect their privacy so they may live as privately as they wish. If your clients have something to hide -- and most of them do -- then they will need good, solid practical solutions that will help them increase their privacy.

They might wish to protect themselves from nosy employers, co-workers, neighbors, stalkers, hackers, politicians or assorted low-lives who have no respect for their privacy. Since we all need some breathing space, regardless of how much we are loved by another, we must learn techniques to keep things private from even our most loved ones.

While my newsletter explores every nook and cranny regarding privacy, the truth is that if you incorporate a few general strategies into your everyday behavior, then you can win the war against the privacy invaders.

So without further ado, join me now, as we begin our journey back to a missing portion of the Old Testament -- the Ten Commandments of Privacy!

1. Thou shalt keep sensitive information private.

Even in today's computer age, you control 90% of what you want most people to know about you. While it is true that your name, address, telephone number, social security number and other personal information are floating around in thousands -- if not hundreds of thousands -- of databases, most snoops don't need to check your background formally because they know that most targets are pleased to volunteer sensitive information. While there are times when you have to divulge personal information (credit card applications, insurance applications, etc.), insist that the people who receive this information keep it confidential. Have them agree in writing that personal information obtained for one purpose will not be used for another purpose without your prior consent. The best strategy is to keep people on a need-to-know basis.

2. Thou shalt pay in cash whenever possible.

Using cash can protect your financial privacy. Cash is preferable to money orders, which are preferable to personal checks, which are in turn preferable to credit cards. Even though most countries are placing serial numbers on currency, cash is difficult to trace, unlike checks. The Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 requires banks to microfilm both sides of all your checks, and this information is at the disposal of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and other governmental agencies; so both Uncle Sam and your bank can put together a dossier of almost any aspect of your life. While money orders are also recorded by the IRS, they are recorded under the name of the issuer, not the purchaser; so your transaction is lost in the shuffle. While credit card purchases are the best from a security point of view, they sacrifice privacy, since most credit card companies sell cardholders' spending habits unless the cardholders specifically request otherwise.

3. Thou shalt guard thy social security number and other identification numbers with thy life.

The Privacy Act of 1974 prohibits a federal, state or local government >from collecting the social security number (SSN) unless the agency can point to a law or regulation on the books in 1974 permitting use of that number. An amendment in 1976, however, exempted the Department of Motor Vehicles as well as other governmental agencies from this act. In addition, there are no significant laws that limit private businesses from collecting or using the SSN. Consequently, the SSN has turned into a de facto national identifier, as have driver's license numbers (which are the same as the SSNs in many states), telephone numbers and passport numbers. The best strategy is to provide alternate identification numbers and never write your social security number on checks or credit card receipts.

4. Thou shalt use a paper shredder in thy daily life.

Court decisions over the past few years have decided that whatever ends up in the trash is fair game. But let's face it, some documents just aren't meant to be shared. So get a shredder. If your budget allows, buy one that cross-cuts rather than strip-cuts. Shred it, then forget it!

5. Thou shalt use a post office box or, better yet, a mail drop.

Post office boxes and mail drops make it difficult for people to find out where you live. They generally provide better security than residential mailboxes, and they offer a permanent mailing address in this day and age when people are moving all the time. For a variety of reasons, I believe that mail drops are superior to post office boxes.

6. Thou shalt inspect thy credit, medical and other personal information files often.

You would be surprised to know what kind of information is kept about you. And much of the time, it's not accurate. Mistakes can lead to financial ruin as well as emotional distress, so request your credit and medical reports often, and use the Freedom of Information Act to inspect any federal files involving you. When inspecting and repairing personal data, you're up against a huge bureaucracy. But if you develop a consistent strategy, you can wipe the slate clean.

7. Thou shalt be circumspect in thy computer affairs.

Make no bones about it: Uncle Sam wants your data. And so do a few hackers and other riffraff who have no respect for your privacy. They want your spreadsheets, your databases and your word processing files. They want to know what you are sending and receiving on your fax/modem, and they want to decrypt any files that you have encrypted. They have the best encryption programs off the market, making their task easier. What can you do? For starters, encrypt files using the best encryption software you can find (we like PGP [Pretty Good Privacy], developed by Phil Zimmerman).

8. Thou shalt be extremely discreet when communicating.

Whether you are using a normal phone, portable phone, cellular phone, fax, modem or some other high-tech device, be careful what you say. You never know who is listening. When in doubt, remember what your parents told you when you were a kid -- "Don't say it over the phone unless you are prepared to see it on the front page of the newspaper."

9. Thou shalt be diligent when choosing passwords and shalt change them periodically.

Passwords are critical in today's world. Automated Teller Machine cards, computer accounts, home security systems. . . you name it. But many of us choose the wrong passwords and never change them.

10. Thou shalt make a lifetime commitment to protecting your privacy.

Protecting one's privacy does not mean being a hermit. It does mean keeping abreast of new technology and its ramifications (i.e., Caller ID, Clipper Chips, etc.); encouraging privacy legislation; and using common sense. The Privacy Newsletter offers you a forum for mutual support and the exchange of useful ideas. Privacy advocates -- let's join forces!

John Featherman is founder and editor of Privacy Newsletter, a monthly newsletter that shows consumers how to get privacy and keep it. A frequent radio and television guest, Mr. Featherman is recognized internationally as a leading authority on privacy issues. Having earned the reputation as a "Speaker's Speaker," he has delivered speeches and conducted seminars on topics ranging from How Businesses Can Spy on Their Competition to Finding Your Friends, Enemies and Family on the Internet in 5 Minutes. Featherman holds a BA and MBA, both from Columbia University. For more information, you may contact Mr. Featherman at Privacy Newsletter, PO Box 8206, Philadelphia, PA 19101-8206; 215/533-7373; e-mail: privacy@mindspring.com.