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Who's watching you?

Vanishing privacy in the information age.


In Kelly White's case, it was a February phone call from a local Office Depot in Chamblee. "They said, 'You left your receipt for your computer purchase here. Since it's a such large purchase, we thought you'd like to come pick it up.'" she recalls. After an initial thrill ("What a nice Valentine's Day surprise!") Kelly and her husband quickly disabused each other of any notion that either had purchased a computer.

Instead, the Whites (who, perhaps understandably, wish not to use their real names) had joined the legions of Americans victimized by someone (in their case, someone still unknown) who'd gotten ahold of enough of their personal information to manufacture a phony Georgia driver's license and a stack of bogus checks.

"Essentially, whoever stole my information — my husband's name, our address, my Social Security number — had also gotten my checking account number. And whoever bought that information apparently created checks from the same sort of templates you would buy at Office Depot."

Over the next couple of weeks, more of the checks surfaced: a cell phone, clothing, almost $1,000 worth of jewelry — somewhere in the neighborhood of $4,000 in worthless paper, all of which had to be explained away. Kelly estimates she spent at least a week's worth of time canceling and creating checking accounts, filing police reports and making countless calls to check-verification services and merchants.

The White's case is a straightforward — and relatively minor — example of what's commonly known as "identity theft." But, in a larger sense, it also exemplifies just one facet (albeit a particularly nasty one) of information-age reality at the dawn of the 21st century.

The Internet-fueled growth of global information as a hot new market has already spurred fairly stringent regulation in some countries (notably, the European Union, which has implemented tough laws guarding an individual's personal data) and, to a lesser extent, here in the U.S. In Georgia, where laws guarding access to private information are virtually nonexistent, privacy advocates are expressing concerns over the easy availability of such information and the potential for its abuse.

Each day, it seems, new accounts emerge detailing the horrors of abused, misused or erroneously disclosed information. Whether it's telemarketers buying personal information from data-miners, "opposition researchers" combing the backgrounds and personal histories of political foes, law enforcement officials and licensed investigators ferreting out reams of purportedly "restricted" information, amateur investigators availing themselves of equally available black-market data, computer-savvy identity thieves, credit card crooks and hi-tech con artists, the ultimate conclusion is the same: The details of your life — financial, personal, educational and maybe even sexual — are an open book.

Many of us have already begun to take some common-sense precautions. We only use "secure" sites to buy stuff online with our credit cards; we stand real close to the phone and guard against prying eyes when we use our calling cards; maybe we even remember to tear up all those pre-printed credit applications that come in the mail. Then there's the Census, which a vocal segment of newly minted privacy mavens assures us is really just a way for the feds to snoop into things that don't concern 'em.

But in general, we're so accustomed to the idea of Big Brother and Big Business looking down our collars, through our wallets and underneath our bedclothes that few Americans over the age of 14 really think their own affairs are truly safe from prying eyes. Even so, the amount and depth of personal detail available to pretty much anyone with a little time — or a little cash — is truly extraordinary.

And despite increasingly vocal cautionary calls, it may already be too late to do anything but try to slow the flood of new data into an already swollen sea.

"In a sense, it is too late," says Gerald Weber, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. "The fact that government is constantly gathering information, as well as all these private companies, and they're all sharing databases and selling information ... there's very little left that one can call 'private.' I don't believe most citizens realize just how open it is. I don't even fully realize it, and I deal with this stuff every day."

Inarguably, the 800-pound gorilla of the information trade is government. From birth certificate to death certificate, our lives are tracked and traced at every level of officialdom. While the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration are by far the most pervasive and constant presences in every American's life, the list of supplementary data — school records, vaccinations, property deeds, juvenile and adult criminal records, driving license information and records, auto registration, gun permits — you name it, Uncle Sam (or any of his myriad nephews and nieces) have it.

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