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What price privacy?

I have a dilemma when it comes to privacy in a digital age.

On one hand, Im a strong believer in privacy rights for individuals. So the proliferation of databases containing information about me, including data about my financial, medical, and consumer histories, alternately annoys and terrifies me. Annoys, because information I might wish to keep personal can be traded among database owners without my consent or even knowledge. Terrifies, because much of that information is used to provide or deny me opportunities -- financial or otherwise -- without verification that the data are current or accurate, again without my consent or even knowledge.

Personally, then, some of the proposals now being drafted to regulate the use of personal information, such as requiring privacy impact statements or offering consumers the chance to "opt in" to having their data shared with others, have a certain paranoid appeal.

On the other hand, Im an executive in an industry that relies heavily on information to sell its wares. In publishing (and probably in your industry, too) it is no longer enough to create good products; we must provide good solutions to our customers -- in my case, executive readers, online users, conference attendees, and other consumers of management information. In my industry as well as yours, satisfying these customers requires that I (you) know what they want by asking them, by conducting focus groups, and by sharing information about product needs, requirements, and purchases appropriately.

From a business perspective, then, those same regulatory proposals look less like safeguards than bureaucratic obstacles -- hurdles that would grant companies with existing databases huge advantages over newcomers who have yet to develop information on potential customers.

Even more compelling than the business case against regulation of databases, however, is the First Amendment rationale. As argued eloquently in "Privacy as Censorship," a paper published by Solveig Singleton of the Cato Institute, data from a transaction constitute news or gossip about an event -- both forms of protected speech under the U.S. Constitution. To regulate such news or gossip would infringe not only on the ability of new businesses to compete with entrenched competitors, but also on civil liberties we take for granted.

Fine, but what of our collective discomfort at having our private lives categorized and evaluated in distant databases? The bad news is that some of that anxiety wont ever go away; people who loan your company money, for instance, will always want to know as much as they can about your ability to pay them back.

Much of the time, though, you can fight back. Dont volunteer information without knowing the ends for which it will be used. Insist that clerks explain why they need each piece of data they request; if they cant answer, ask to speak to supervisors until someone can. Demand to see copies of your completed database record.

After all, if you dont treat your personal data like the public and valuable information that it is, how can you expect anyone else to treat it appropriately?

Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected]

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