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Privacy in the computer age.

Swish. Click. Swish. Click. The sound of computer disk drives and printers can be heard 24 hours per day around the globe. These computers are spreading gossip about us. What are they saying?

William Safire of the New York Times wrote:

We are frisking each other. Picture

yourself going to work tomorrow,

handing over blood and urine samples,

taking a quick turn with the

house polygraph, turning out your

pockets and walking through some

new fluoroscope. You object?

Whatsamatter, you got something

to hide?

Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal, answered: "An employee with nothing to hide may well be an employee with nothing to offer!"

Journalists Safire and Smith worry about our privacy in this Computer Age for good reasons. Every day we hear about privacy in relation to abortion, AIDS testing, credit ratings, IRS audits, medical records, or mailing lists. Today, it is hard to purchase an automobile or to vote without somebody plugging into a computer to verify our existence.

Our Computer Age is a double-edged sword. The good news first. Economical desktop or laptop computers let us search encyclopedias, dictionaries, and vast databases by pressing a few buttons. We often label this positive power the "Information Age" Now the bad news. The same computers permit credit agencies, insurance companies, and governments to collect, store, and sell data about us. Our "confidential" medical and bank records move freely from computer to computer - usually without our consent. Often the data in computer files is incorrect. For example, one Californian's life became a nightmare after 12 strangers began using her Social Security number for credit scams. I call this dark side of computer technology the "Surveillance Age"

How should humanists react to this cohabitation with computers? Around 1900, Frederick W. Taylor, the "father of scientific management," urged employers to dictate their employees' smallest movements. In 1992, Big Manager's obsession with surveillance begins before we join the payroll. Corporations use lie detectors, voice-stress analyzers, urinalysis tests, fingerprints, retina scans, blood tests, and (not only in California!) handwriting analysis and astrology to screen us from other applicants. A popular software package, Auto-AOC (for Advance Office Controls), tells managers how quickly workers should move. This program dictates that it should take 7.5 seconds to open envelopes and 2.9 seconds to staple papers. In 1977, our calls to Bell Canada operators lasted 85 seconds on the average. A decade later, because of computer monitoring, the average call is 27 seconds. Operators are tempted to hang up on people with speech or hearing defects in order to fulfill their robotic quotas. Some of us hold that these computer usages attack our basic dignity; others among us hold that job efficiency is more vital than privacy.

Spying by corporate computers is spiraling. Computer designer Stephen Hollander told a Canadian conference: "More than 100 pieces of equipment described by George Orwell in 1984 now exist." Congresswoman Barbara Pringle of Cleveland tried to outlaw this inhumane monitoring of people; how, ever, her bill was killed by the business community. "It's crazy," she says. "You stop to sneeze, and the machine says you're behind"

Criminal databanks also pose a threat to law-abiding citizens. Today, records about select criminals (usually excluding Fortune 500 and US. government-employed white-collar criminals) are stored in central computers. A major example is the FBI's National Crime Information Center. No doubt this system helps apprehend dangerous persons who should be behind bars, but what happens when the system goes haywire? Imagine yourself in the position of John Smith (an alias).

A few years ago, an Alabama prison escapee ("Carl") got his hands on a copy of Smith's birth certificate. Carl obtained a Cafifornia driver's license in Smith's name and was arrested in Los Angeles as a murder suspect. After Carl was released from custody, Los Angeles police entered a murder arrest warrant for John Smith into the NCIC system. The warrant included none of Carl's physical features (including a tattoo). The real John Smith (a man from Saginaw, Michigan) was arrested three times, sometimes at gunpoint while handcuffed, as a murder suspect. Each time Smith was set free when the mistaken identity was proven; however, the Los Angeles police failed to change the false data in the NCIC files. Finally, Smith's nightmare ended; a Saginaw News reporter initiated a costly erasure process. A court ruled that the city of Los Angeles had robbed Smith of his right to be free of faulty warrants - and that this abuse was "both grossly negligent and systemic in nature" The Los Angeles police had received zero training in how to delete incorrect data from criminal files!

Why should we care about these data files? Suppose a police officer knowingly enters false data about you into the NCIC. (Maybe the officer owes you money or holds a personal grudge.) Or imagine that a secretary presses the wrong computer codes after your name. How will you know about, much less repair, these errors? Visit your local police or FBI office and ask them to show you what, if anything, the NCIC computer says about you. It is a safe bet that they will judge you a "nut" or a "suspicious" person. Can we trust any Big Brother who condemns us for wanting to know about ourselves?

Much of our privacy is disappearing because of the worship of "efficiency." When we use credit cards rather than cash, we tell our VISA computer what we eat, drink, and wear. When we use a cordless or cellular phone rather than a phone with wires, we make it easy for nosy neighbors and political snoops to eavesdrop. When we rent videos rather than visit movie theaters, we notify computers about our cinematic tastes. Daily, we volunteer data about ourselves that, in pre-computer culture, were gleaned only by the secret police.

In the 1990s, our right to personal privacy will face unique trials because of new computer applications.

What would you say if the post office photocopied all of your mad and saved it in a warehouse? Today, millions of us give that awesome power to the owners of telephone voice boxes and E-mail systems. The Russian KGB could only dream of such power.

We are entering a Brave New Web of electronic media which will ink people and institutions. Already, millions of us employ computer networks like Compuserve (owned by H & R Block), Prodigy (owned by IBM and Sears), and GEnie (owned by General Electric). These "nets" are used to pay bills, to pursue hobbies, to solicit sex, and to deliver personal mail. All of these exchanges are saved on computer disks. Who can stop the directors at these networks from "leaking" our personal files to whomever they wish?

Today, we join computer networks by choice. For instance, I subscribe to the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link). Anyone with proper computer skills can mail me documents or photos at my computer address: "" Similarly, I attend conferences and meetings - all on my computer screen. In the near future, nets might well become as necessary as telephones.

(The American Humanist Association might desire to join or launch a computer network. This would enable the AHA to organize events, distribute memos, and collect dues with ease. Also, members could interact daily in this new humanist community.)

Who will own and rule these networks? Media moguls such as Pat Robertson, defense giants such as General Electric, or the public? Who win patrol our privacy?

Fortunately, a few socially aware computer groups wrestle with these issues. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), based in Washington, D.C., and the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), centered in Palo Alto, Cafifornia, are two notable examples. These people are working to ensure that the Bill of Rights is extended to our Computer Age. Specifically, they are pushing for a legal guarantee that would state: "No person shall be denied credit, employment, or the opportunity to engage in a commercial transaction for failure to provide his or her Social Security number" Also, EFF and CPSR are fighting to give us the legal and technical power to encrypt (encode) our computer messages to secure our privacy.

Harvard constitutional law scholar Laurence H. Tribe views technological threats to our freedoms as so serious that he has proposed a constitutional amendment that would apply to computers.

Essayist Phyllis McGinley gives us more food for thought: "The human animal needs a freedom seldom mentioned: freedom from intrusion. He needs a little privacy quite as much as he wants understanding or vitamins or exercise or praise."

Many a time, humanists have routed tyrants who have used spys to degrade and control people. We must struggle to make the Computer Age our servant, not our master!

Scientist Andre Bacard is the author of Hunger for Power: Who Rules the World and How. A guest on hundreds of radio talk shows, he can be reached at Box 3009, Stanford, CA 94309.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Technology and Society
Author:Bacard, Andre
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Good news, so far.
Next Article:Lesbian witches, socialist sodomites, and cultural war.

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