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Americans giving away their right to privacy.

Do you consider your financial and medical records to be confidential; get annoyed when someone eavesdrops on your conversations or phone calls; wish to keep some information about your work or personal history secret from friends, family, or employers; prefer that others not read your mail or messages; ever buy a magazine, book, or video that you wouldn't want some people to know about; worry about giving out your credit card number over the telephone; and/or sometimes go places that you'd rather not be public knowledge? A "yes" answer to any of these questions indicates that you value your privacy.

However, with the advent of electronic communication and a growing willingness on the part of many Americans to allow government and big business to monitor every aspect of their lives, an individual's right to privacy is shrinking at an alarming rate, cautions Bill Loving, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication, University of Oklahoma. "And the more we rely on the electronic transfer of information, automated teller machines, and credit cards, the more privacy we are giving away. We leave a record of where we go, when we were there, and what we buy."

A record also exists of every telephone call, revealing what number was called at what time and how long the conversations lasted. Moreover, conversations via cordless and cellular phones easily are intercepted.

License-plate numbers aid law-enforcement officials in tracking down criminals, but the numbers also facilitate an invasion of the privacy of people who are not criminals. For instance, anti-abortion forces have been able to enter data banks and use license-plate numbers to obtain the names, addresses, and phone numbers of those parked outside family-planning clinics.

Reader cards that allow entry to buildings with computerized door locks leave an electronic trail, Loving points out. In the interest of security, some universities either use or are considering the use of reader cards for access to dormitories, but such a system also would keep track of residents' comings and goings. "This is a serious invasion of personal privacy."

Those who use the information superhighway are leaving a record of everything they down-load, including material that some governments might consider subversive or employers might consider disloyal. The courts have upheld the firing of employees who sent e-mail critical of their boss or company, ruling that the company owns the electronic mail. "When you put something on the information superhighway, you have no idea who the audience is. And anything you commit will be out there forever."

The electronic trail that people inadvertently leave behind is not the only threat to privacy. "We sometimes willingly, if unknowingly, help to erode our own privacy by telling people what they want to know." For example, every time a person fills out a product-information card or survey form, providing information about family size, income, Social Security number, hobbies, pets, political leanings, religious preference, and a variety of other disclosures, that information goes into data banks, creating or adding to an electronic file on that person.

Privacy is not a simple issue, Loving admits. There is a danger in too much privacy. "We want to know if an applicant for school teacher has a previous record as a child molester. We want to know if a school bus driver has a record of driving under the influence of drugs. But who do we trust to monitor our lives? Do we trust government with the power to take away privacy rights, to restrict the spread of knowledge and ideas, and to gather information to be used against us at some point in time for being unorthodox?"
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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