Montana Viewpoint
June 11, 2007

When it comes to safeguarding personal privacy, I often used to wonder which was the greater threat: the federal Government or private commercial interests. I now know the answer to that; it’s both.

Many of us know that the American Revolution was fought, in large part, because of the oppressive and invasive encroachment on our personal liberties by the British. It’s no coincidence that all ten amendments in the Bill of Rights protect the individual from the government.

Many of us also know that the terrorist attacks of 2001 began a new era of governmental inquiry into American citizens’ whereabouts and personal activities. The USA PATRIOT Act was the most recent and most successful effort by government to know where we are and what we are doing there.

But what many of us forget is that in our day-to-day lives - at the doctors, at the grocery store, or on the phone, in fact, anytime we voluntarily offer information about ourselves - someone is collecting it. That collected data is then sold to anyone who wants to buy it, including the Federal government. It is not small potatoes.

One use of this information is to help a business market new products or to determine the best marketing techniques for a particular audience. For instance, one telephone company looking at telephone usage patterns found that households with a high number of lengthy calls between 3 and 6 PM were likely to have teenagers in them, and the company used that information to contact those households in an attempt to sell them a separate telephone line for the teenagers.

Supermarket chains like Safeway and Albertsons have programs that encourage customers to get a “Club Card” so they can get big savings. They offer a powerful incentive to get these puppies; I’ve seen grapes listed at $2.50 a pound for club members but $5.25 a pound for cardless shoppers. That’s not “savings,” that’s extortion!

The information they gather from you is most obviously used to give you computer generated coupons with your receipt for you next purchase. It may be some thing you always buy, or it may be something the data analysis thinks you might buy because millions of shoppers who bought “A” also buy “B.” The more troubling use of the information is that they may sell it to companies that analyze it and market it.

According to the Washington Post Weekly Edition of May 28, 2007, some doctors are alarmed because they are getting letters from pharmaceutical companies saying something like, “we see you prescribe a generic drug for pinkeye. We recommend that you use Vigamox, which we make.” “How,” the doctor wonders, “do they know what I prescribe?” They know because the mail order and chain pharmacies sell prescription information to the pharmaceutical companies; and because the American Medical Association helps them link the prescription to the doctor—for a fee.

It’s one thing for a company to use personal information about its customers to develop marketing strategies; it’s quite a different issue to sell it to someone else. But selling that information is viewed as just a way to gain some extra income from something they collect anyway. I view it as an invasion of my privacy.

And who would be one of the larger purchasers of data? Why the United States Government, of course. I doubt that they buy grocery sales data, but they do buy telephone call records from AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth; and you can bet they analyze the pants off of it.

Attempts by state legislatures to restrict or ban the practice have been futile. On April 30, 2007 a New Hampshire law was ruled unconstitutional by a federal district court judge who viewed it as an attempt to limit “commercial speech.”

It’s possible to prevent some of your personal data from being collected by paying twice as much for grapes as a card-carrying shopper, paying cash for everything (suspect in itself), or take out the telephone; basically it means changing your lifestyle to one reminiscent of the early 20th Century, which is not all that unappealing.

It’s a strange world we live in anymore, when we are willing to trade our personal privacy for more convenient shopping. A world in which bumper sticker will read, “I love my country, but I fear my grocer.”

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620