NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Privacy In The Information Age

May 19, 1999

The right of privacy has been a major distinction between democracies and dictatorships. But those who hold privacy in high regard have seen their rights slowly eroded for decades -- and now the process could swiftly accelerate in the era of high tech.

  • A single company -- Acxiom Corp. in Conway, Ark. -- has a database combining public and consumer information that covers 95 percent of American households.
  • A 1997 survey of 900 large companies by the American Management Association found that nearly two-thirds admitted to some form of electronic surveillance of their employees.
  • Intelligence agencies from America, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand jointly monitor all international satellite-telecommunications traffic via a system called "Echelon" which can pick specific words or phrases from hundreds of thousands of messages.
  • Tiny microphones can record whispered conversations across the street or monitor them via the normally imperceptible vibrations of window glass.

Among the dangers lurks the occasional benefit. In a few years' time, supermarkets could check the contents of customers' refrigerators -- compiling a shopping list as they run out of edibles.

Is privacy a thing of the past? Legal experts reply that while privacy statutes exist in the U.S. and other countries, courts have found it almost impossible to pin down a precise legal definition of it and privacy lawsuits hardly ever succeed.

The answer may be to rely on market solutions. Already some companies are developing devices to thwart snoops -- such as firms that forward e-mail stripped of any identifying information.

Source: "The Surveillance Society," Economist, May 1, 1999.


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