Privacy Skirmishes Flare, While the War Smolders

Another incendiary case, this time in Washington State, shows how freely available your personal info is online. But what can be done?

By Heather Green

Every once in awhile, a privacy flareup will happen, shedding light on the secrets of the data-collection business. That one flash will illuminate how much consumer information is routinely gathered and sold. And for a brief period, consumers will feel vindicated in their concern about how casually their privacy is being invaded.

Up until these incidents, companies and corporate interest groups do their best to undermine consumer worries. They say the concern recorded in opinion surveys is simply uneducated hysteria. Corporations support research predicting doomsday scenarios if the industry is obligated to enact consumer privacy protections. And they work hard to water down legislation when it does get proposed.

We're in the middle of a ideological war between laissez-faire industry execs and privacy advocates. With the clout that the industry wields in Washington, it's hard to be optimistic that the right to privacy will ever get the kind of protection it deserves in the Digital Age. That is, until the data companies inadvertently show their hands every once in awhile, as they have done in an incident in Kirkland, Wash.


  It's an incendiary case. Bill Sheehan, a network engineer who lives in Mill Creek, Wash., is being sued by the City of Kirkland for posting information about police officers on a site called Following a dispute with a police officer, Sheehan in March published online officers' personal information, including Social Security numbers, home addresses and maps, home phone numbers, monthly pay, and court records.

Sheehan argues on the site that amassing a database is one way to hold police officers accountable and that he will remove the information if the city will undertake actions, including creating an office for police accountability. In response, the city and the police officers argue that publication of the personal information invades the officers' privacy and puts them in danger of personal harm.

A ruling in July didn't settle the question. The King County Superior Court made an injunctive ruling, stating that the officers had a "compelling interest in keeping their Social Security numbers private" and ordering Sheehan to remove the numbers from the site. The City of Kirkland is asking for a review of the judgment to get all the information except names removed from the site, while Sheehan is appealing to allow all the information to remain online.


  The case brings up a lot of contentious issues, including harassment risks for public officials and First Amendment rights. At the most basic level, though, I think this case demonstrates how easy it is to get hold of this kind of information. According to court records, Sheehan collected about two-thirds of the data online, from aggregation services available on Yahoo! and Infosearch and data clearinghouses Data-Trac and U.S. Search, which collect and sell public records such as tax liens, Social Security numbers, court records, and lists of relatives, roommates, and neighbors. The rest came straight from government agencies and court records online.

The issue is twofold. Government agencies increasingly are digitizing information, making it more readily available with few restrictions on usage. Instead of going down to the courthouse, anyone can look up information online or ask for a CD-ROM copy. Meantime, the huge clearinghouses are constantly increasing the amount and sophistication of the information they have on individuals.

The problem, of course, is that few people know about the very vibrant trade in consumer information. Sure, we know data is collected by financial institutions and credit-card companies. But few of us have ever heard of services like Data-trac or know that the information gathered by the government during the U.S. Census or tax filings routinely winds up in these companies' databases.


  Most of us would be surprised to learn that we can choose not to have our information sold by these services because we don't even know these companies have our data. We aren't notified when information about us is sold by data-collection services or whether that information is accurate. I bet that the Kirkland police, who probably have access to loads of information about citizens, were shocked to have the tables turned on them.

The time for the privacy debate is exactly when consumers learn about these kinds of practices. Notwithstanding the very important legal issues around this particular case, these kinds of incidents should prompt a broader discussion about what we and the government should be doing to ensure more protection of the right to privacy. Consumers are at a disadvantage in this issue, because they don't know the forces at work. As a collector of data, the government needs to figure out what kinds of restrictions can be placed on the traffic of personal information.

There is, of course, a fine line between First Amendment rights and selling information for a profit. While I wouldn't argue to abridge the First Amendment, I do think that more can be done to change the common practice of buying and selling information without consumer consent or knowing if their data is handled fairly. Protecting the right to be left alone, the seminal definition of privacy defined by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in the 1890s, needs to be a focal point during the next decade.

Green covers the Internet and e-commerce for BusinessWeek

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