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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Advertisers Overlook Privacy Concerns

The gigantic computer files on the personal lives of Americans — as buyers, patients, children, students, workers, citizens, and taxpayers — continue to grow. The right of privacy, which is constitutionally protected, receives much lip service but little organized defense.

Yet survey after survey shows people are worried and upset over repeated disclosures of violations of that right.

The invasion of the personal self is big business.

 Every hour of the day and night, such personal information is being moved around the country, and the world, between companies and employers and governments. This information determines whether or not people get jobs, insurance, and credit. And it’s done without the knowledge or permission of the subject.

Existing laws give you the right to access your credit bureau file if you were denied credit, work, or insurance based on its contents. And you can demand access to correct errors. These laws were passed by Congress in the 1970s after the credit industry disclosed checkers were given quotas to meet — they had to find negative information on a certain percentage of their inquiries.

The laws are woefully inadequate, given the surge in personal-data collection and utilization. People should have property rights over use of their files. No private-sector organization should be able to use the information without permission of the citizen.

But Congress is moving in the opposite direction. Under H.R. 11, now moving through Congress, in conglomerate financial institutions like Citigroup, information about you can be exchanged between their health insurance, bank, brokerage, and other subsidiaries. So, for example, if you are trying to get a mortgage, your health file can also be accessed.

We hear reports of outrageous invasions of privacy regularly. They shock the public’s sensibilities, yet there is little action. Just the other day, a woman wrote to say that four years ago she had a miscarriage in a Washington, D.C., hospital. She has since regularly received marketing from advertisers who assume the child is alive. The hospital had sold her name to marketing firms.

On the radio earlier this month I heard a report that a company was asking the public you to give it the names of people with bad breath, so they can be sent ads for products that purportedly curb halitosis.

The Internet invites even more brazen commercial forays. A company called Postage4free.com wants to make profits by selling detailed demographic information on self-selected, self-defined participants. If you reveal your innermost consumer habits, writes columnist Mark Hall of Computerworld, this company will send you 10 prestamped envelopes festooned with promotions.

But that is not all. Postage4free.com offers additional free postage if people also squeal on their friends and associates by handing over their e-mail addresses, Hall says. So, more spam and chain e-mail, he predicts.

If you have a story to tell or a complaint to register, you can e-mail Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) from his Web page at www.house.gov/markey/.