NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Privacy Concerns Proliferate

April 30, 2001

Information technology is increasing the complexity of privacy issues, say experts. For instance, electronic surveillance technology used by law enforcement officers is raising new questions about the limits of privacy and the reach of the Constitution's protections against search and seizure. And under a "know your customer" program, banks monitor customers' accounts for "suspicious activities" and "voluntarily" report them to regulators.

In addition to banking, the federal government alone has hundreds of databases, and new government rules will create a centralized health information network and assign unique identifiers -- national IDs -- to all patients.

Some people see the development of targeted marketing by businesses and the ability to track a customer's activities on a Web site as a threat to consumer privacy.

  • One survey found that 86 percent thought Internet companies should ask permission before sharing personal information with third parties.
  • Even so, 55 percent of Americans bought something online during the holiday season -- and 86 percent reported they tried to buy, although technical problems prevented many from completing their transactions.

And many employers monitor employees' activities electronically or with video cameras, and some use medical or credit information in making hiring and promotion decisions. For instance,

  • A survey in early 2001 reported that 61 percent of large businesses were monitoring workers' use of the Internet.
  • Another survey concluded that 35 percent of Fortune 500 companies use medical information in hiring or promotions.

Source: Solveig Singleton (Competitive Enterprise Institute), "Privacy in a Free Country: In Search of Reasonable Principles," NCPA Policy Report No. 243, April 2001, National Center for Policy Analysis.

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