In today's hyperconnected world, it's not difficult to find personal information about someone. Most search engines have “people finders” or “personal locators” that supply telephone numbers, street addresses, and even directions to people's houses. For a little money, say $25, one can obtain someone's Social Security number, previous addresses and possibly their driving record.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. “Most people don't realize how much information about them is out there,” says Deirdra Mulligan, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.
“We should be worried about this,” agrees Mary Griffin, counsel for the Consumers Union of the United States. “People just don't know how little privacy protection they have when it comes to this stuff.”
Particularly worrisome, say privacy advocates like Griffin, are the hundreds of companies in the United States today that devote themselves to collecting an unfathomable amount of information about almost everyone in the country. Some can provide detailed financial histories, including information about bank accounts, credit card balances and loans. Others offer employment records or track buying habits.
“They have gone on an information-collecting binge,” says Charles Morgan Jr., chief executive for Arkansas-based Acxiom Co., one of the largest information-collection firms in the country. “There's just this insatiable appetite for more information to make better decisions.”
The information these firms collect is used for a variety of purposes, from running credit checks to creating marketing campaigns. And the data comes from a huge number of sources. When someone fills out a credit-card application, registers with a club, completes a survey or enters a contest, there is a good chance that the information they have given will end up with one or more of these firms. Much of the information also comes from government agencies. “With so much public information on-line, it's easy to find out a lot about someone,” says Pamela Rucker, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation.
There has long been a wealth of information available about Americans. After all, the United States has always been a consumer-driven and legalistic society. But until recently, there was no affordable way to collect, store and retrieve this data. Computers — and later the Internet — changed that. “The information was always there, but it took technology to enable them to use it properly,” Rucker says.
And the opportunities offered by technology have led to an explosion of new data-collection firms. In the last five years alone — the period paralleling Internet growth — the number of firms has increased by a factor of 10. Today, there are more than 1,000 companies collecting and selling information.
Many observers complain that the rush to collect personal information that has followed the computer and Internet revolutions has not been accompanied by proper efforts to protect privacy. “Technology is clearly ahead of policy here,” Griffin says. Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., a privacy-protection firm, agrees. “What we have is really a form of surveillance.”
Griffin and others think that anyone who collects information from a consumer should be required to give the consumer the option of prohibiting disclosure to outside parties. For example, she says, “When you filled out a credit-card application, there would be a box you could check giving you the right to stop the transfer of that information to others.”
But those who collect and use the information counter that the services they provide are integral to the flow of modern commerce in the Information Age. For example, they say, when people apply for credit cards or auto insurance, credit checks can be run almost instantaneously. Consumers may value their privacy, but they value convenience even more. “Consumers don't want it tomorrow, they want it now or yesterday,” Rucker says.