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The ACLU's Fevered Privacy Nightmare

You call up the pizza place wanting nothing more than a couple of pies to go with your movie rental. You end up with a visit to the Orwellian dystopia in which pizza clerks casually romp through your online medical, criminal, financial and employment records.

This is the American Civil Liberties Union's idea of how to get mainstream Americans to see the horrors of technology, the coming nightmare in which our personal information is readily available to just about any business or government agency. And any of us would look at this ad and conclude that it's not a huge exaggeration of the state of information as it already exists.

But pardon me if I'm not particularly outraged. I consider myself a pretty hard core civil libertarian. You'd be hard pressed to find the speech issue where I don't side with the speaker, no matter how ugly the content. I believe just about every act by every single person in government should be open to the public. But the ACLU loses me when it switches gears and argues that our system means transparency for the government and corporations but tightly protected privacy for individuals. Sorry, but an open society should be open for and to all: That means I don't mind if hospitals and doctors have access to my health records--in fact, I want every bit of my medical history to be immediately summonable by any ER in the land. I don't mind if insurers see records of everyone's personal behavior because I want those who live healthy lives to get lower prices and those who don't to pay something extra for their added risk. I don't mind retailers poking around our financial records because I'd like them to grant discounts to those who are most likely to pay their bills and to penalize those who are deadbeats.

Information, the Internet has taught us, wants to be free, both in terms of pricing and in terms of open availability. The ACLU is right to fight for access to government's doings. But it shouldn't then turn around and say that information about citizens is somehow off limits. The same rules that should apply to lobbyists, corporate honchos and politicians--put the information out there and let democracy flourish--should also apply to Joe Citizen.

By Marc Fisher |  February 3, 2006; 7:22 AM ET
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Marc, you seem to miss the point that government is of, for, and by the people. All should have open access to what our tax dollars fund and is being done in our name. Government is subordinate to its citizens - I want to be "governed" in a partnership, not "ruled" as a subject. This is why the privacy of individual citizens supercedes that of the government.

Posted by: Steve Archer | February 3, 2006 9:14 AM

Fisher wrote:
"But the ACLU loses me when it switches gears and argues that our system means transparency for the government and corporations but tightly protected privacy for individuals. Sorry, but an open society should be open for and to all..."

You are arguing that individuals and "the government/corporations" are somehow equal under the Constitution. That is not true at all. The government exists FOR and BY the people with constitutionally required checks and balances. The government does not have "rights". The Bill of Rights was written for the individual. Governmental institutions should be open to inspection because they are the agencies of the people so openess is required for accountability to the people. To argue that openness of government is somehow equal to unauthorized opening of my bank account and hospital records to other people, companies or the government is a non-sequitor.

Now corporations are a different issue entirely from government. No one would argue that Alcoa must open its trade secrets to inspection or Coca Cola must disclose its syrup formulation. But corporations are also not people. For the public good there needs to be some transparancies such as hiring practices, executive perks that take money away from shareholders, and of course criminal behavior such as accounting or trade practices, and regulation for public safety. We have a whole governmental agency, the FDA, regulating food for the public health. No one would argue that the FDA should stop intruding on food corporations because it is an intrusion on privacy. But to compare this to my medical records, or my finances is just plain wrong.

No one should intrude on individual privacy whether it be other individuals, corporations or the government, without consent. That is what our Constitution's Bill of Rights is mostly about. Its not just illegal for the government to tap my phone without a warrant, its illegal for you, or GM to tap my phone. To argue that individual privacy is somehow a fantasy in the USA is to argue against the Bill of Rights and the laws of this nation and its states which were written to protect those rights.

Posted by: Sully | February 3, 2006 9:15 AM

You say "I don't mind if insurers see records of everyone's personal behavior because I want those who live healthy lives to get lower prices and those who don't to pay something extra for their added risk."

What about insurers learning about family history, genetic information, and other factors beyond the individual's control that still make the individual an "added risk"?

Not every piece of information that an individual would like to keep private is simply hiding that individual's misdeed. There are many ways -- public and private, financial and non-financial, legally sanctioned and prohibited (but often difficult to prevent) -- that our society discriminates against people for things that are beyond their control. Is it unreasonable for people to try and protect private information in order to avoid that kind of discrimination?

Posted by: Oh really? | February 3, 2006 9:18 AM

Are you really arguing that privacy of the individual, guaranteed in so many ways by the Bill of Rights, is somehow to be equated with the rights of companies and government, which do not have the same rights under the constitution? Are you saying that meat packing companies can shut their doors to the prying eyes of the FDA? Or are you arguing that the FDA has a right to inspect my steak and chicken I'm grilling tonight to make sure I prepare it safely? Re-read the constitution and do not equate the people with the servents of the people.

Posted by: Sully | February 3, 2006 9:22 AM

Safety, errors, and misuse of information are sufficient reasons for private citizens to remain private citizens.

The people who have access to your information right now are not always honest and are not always right. That is why I can buy your cell phone records online for $110. It is why identity theft is a fast-growing crime. It is why I don't want my wife's abusive ex-boyfriend, who works regularly in an ER, to be able to find out that she had an abortion while dating him years ago. My brother does not register to vote because that would make his name and address public, and he has had death threats from someone who knew where he lived previously.

Here's another good reason in this article.

Posted by: Nichten | February 3, 2006 9:31 AM

You are clueless.
The Government has power, the individual does not.
The Government is passing laws hiding everything from public view so that we cannot prosecute their criminal activites, which numerous and flagrant.

You fail to recognize the difference, the inequalites, between a Government and an Individual.

You are not only clueless, you are a danger to the freedom that countless people have died for fighting the tyranny of unchecked power.

Information is Power.
The Citizen should be safe in his home.

Posted by: Impeach Bush | February 3, 2006 9:50 AM

Who is paying you Mark to be so...Bushie?

Posted by: Impeach Bush | February 3, 2006 9:52 AM

It appears the keyword in your comments was "I"... while the Constitution and Bill of Rights rather says.."I" is to be protected from them as we cannot and never should trust them. Are you sure you did not ghost write or assist in "1984"?

Posted by: 4all | February 3, 2006 9:59 AM

You said: "Information, the Internet has taught us, wants to be free, both in terms of pricing and in terms of open availability. The ACLU is right to fight for access to government's doings. But it shouldn't then turn around and say that information about citizens is somehow off limits. The same rules that should apply to lobbyists, corporate honchos and politicians--put the information out there and let democracy flourish--should also apply to Joe Citizen."

The more I think about your kind of thinking is going to get us all FUCT.

Hope you are first.

Posted by: Impeach Bush | February 3, 2006 9:59 AM

Posted by: Melissa | February 3, 2006 10:04 AM

Marc: Please define "people who live healthy lives."

Does that mean women who fail to take folic acid prior to conception and have a baby with spina bifida? Are we to charge her more? Or her child?

What about a person like your colleague, Gene Weingarten, who used drugs and has since cleaned up but suffers from a chronic illness?

Health records are such wonderful and terrible things. Yes, it would be wonderful for any ER, anywhere, to pull up your medical records. The National Health Information Network proposes to do just that.

But what about privacy protections for the person who goes to their local ER, their medical record is accessed and some previous bad or stigmatized behavior is revealed. Any doctor or nurse could disclose that condition, without fear of penalty.

At present, HIPAA is supposed to protect people from such disclosures. After more than 10,000 complaints, not a single legal action has been taken by HHS. (HIPAA provides no private right of action).

Posted by: Melissa | February 3, 2006 10:12 AM

False analogy.

Individual citizens can't be legitimately compared to the government.

Businesses seeking information about me have different motives than the government does.

Those different motives should not be ignored.

Posted by: Bill of Rights | February 3, 2006 10:19 AM

One more point: if I want something from a business, I can easily figure out how to find the information.

I neither need nor want businesses to contact me.

Posted by: Bill of Rights | February 3, 2006 10:24 AM


I agree. People want it both ways. People in this country voluntarily sacrifice privacy for conveinence on a daily basis, yet then complain that "all this information is out there."

(Ie: would you rather use direct deposit or do you want to be paid in cash? Do you send e-mails over the servers controlled by a private company - or via your work provided account - or do you send via snail mail?)

We make trade off every day. But if you chose to reap the ebenfits of conveinence, don;t turn around and the complain about big brother...

Posted by: aflapr | February 3, 2006 10:27 AM

I volunteer to buy Marc Fisher's phone records and post them on the Internet.

Posted by: Winston | February 3, 2006 10:35 AM

Well, you have to remember that the ACLU has thier NAMBALA clients to worry about. They don't want the government to know about their support of child abuse.

Posted by: Jacknut | February 3, 2006 10:38 AM

We sell mail lists of Boat Owners to marina owners, boat manufacturers, insurance agents' and small mom and pop businesses.

These small businesses use the lists to send relevent information to prospective clients and to the tune of about 1%, it works. Their busniens grows and everyone prospers. It'd be a real to call a piece of mail---possibly very relevant--to be an instrusion of their privacy.

In 28 states Boat Registratiion Lists are considered such 'private', confidential and top secret information that if the state were to tell you who owned, for example a 30 foot Searay; they'd have to kill you.

The word "Privacy" has been used to justify some pretty strange arguments.

Posted by: Shawn Harmon | February 3, 2006 10:44 AM

Winston--If you're buying, I'm happy to sign off on posting my records. Regular readers of my column may recall that a while back I published my computer password because I oppose the near-hysteria that's developed around computer security. Sure, I got some annoying email as a result, but nothing overly burdensome. Openness has a way of leveling out extreme behaviors.

Posted by: Fisher | February 3, 2006 10:47 AM


So you'd be perfectly fine with your insurance company buying your shopping records from Safeway, and then jacking up your insurance rates because you're eating too much junk food?

I'd like to suggest that you are not as hard core a civil libertarian as you think you are.

Posted by: Orson | February 3, 2006 10:53 AM

So you think the pizza guy should have complete access to all your financial info? Terrific - if you're serious then post your tax returns here. We're all friends, right?

I guess you won't mind when the pizza guys say "sorry, our database indicates you had more than your allowable share of pizza this month. Can we get you a salad?"

Posted by: asdg | February 3, 2006 11:08 AM

aflapr wrote:
"We make trade off every day. But if you chose to reap the ebenfits of conveinence, don;t turn around and the complain about big brother..."

Why not? If I choose to provide my personnal information to someone, say an insurance company, why should I not be upset with the federal government obtaining and that information? The federal government is the servent of the people. They are not the king who's rights are above all. Get this straight - The People run this country and the government is its servent, not the People's Big Brother!

Once you start thinking that everyone rights are subservient to the government's needs, you have burnt and buried the Bill of Rights. And once they are gone, believe me, you will care.

I remember back in the 60s-70s there were many movies/shows dealing with a world where government ruled the People instead of the other way around. It reminded people of what we have and what we will have if we loose it. Maybe its time to start showing some re-runs. Or just read Animal House. That pretty much explained it for me. And maybe try reading the Bill of Rights and understand they are not just good ideas, they are the law of the land.

If Fisher wants to give his information to the government and others freely, let him. But because he feels he is FREE to do so does not translate into a rule that I or anyone else MUST do so. To think that way violates your and my constitutionally guaranted rights. How unAmerican.

Posted by: Sully | February 3, 2006 11:09 AM

Weak very weak, Let me know how you feel about your insurence company dropping you doue to an error on your credit report or just a dispute. I think you should post your credit info online right now to show how much you stand behind what you say

Posted by: bob K | February 3, 2006 11:19 AM

"Regular readers of my column may recall that a while back I published my computer password because I oppose the near-hysteria that's developed around computer security. Sure, I got some annoying email as a result, but nothing overly burdensome. Openness has a way of leveling out extreme behaviors."
In the name of openness, will you be posting your ATM pin number sometime, too (or for that matter, your password to online banking)?

Posted by: Michael | February 3, 2006 11:28 AM

It's always so thrilling when a boring, middle-aged white man declares that his life is an open book, telling the rest of us that he has nothing to hide. Right, you don't care who knows about your personal medical history because there's nothing in it that might be used against you. What if you had AIDS? What if you'd had an abortion at 18? What if . . . I could go on, but this is useless. You're not concerned because you don't see a downside for YOU. I think the ACLU and others who are fighting to protect our privacy are probably looking beyond their own self-interest.

Posted by: Brussels | February 3, 2006 11:28 AM

Wanting privacy in my personal life is definitely NOT wanting to "have it both ways." When I do something which puts my private information "out there," I do so with the understanding that it will stay private! My reasons for doing things are completely different than the reasons of businesses or for the government. Marc, you are only fooling yourself; "hard-core civil libertarian," indeed, ha!

Posted by: bobsje | February 3, 2006 11:29 AM

Step up to the plate Mr. Fisher: We are curious (we just want to know) about you. We're requesting that you release all of your financial, medical, family, residential, personal preferences as recorded by every expenditure, what you read, what you eat, when you sleep, where and when you drive, everyplace you go, who you see, what you say, who you call, who you write to, and of course, what they all say to you . . .
I'm sure there's more I'd like to know. Let me think . . .

Posted by: Marilyn | February 3, 2006 12:06 PM

I don't think that the ACLU should be casting stones at anyone for violating privacy rights. In a highly ironic episode, I recently received some unsolicited snail-mail from the ACLU, addressed to my attention. The letter contained a three-page rant against what the ACLU believes is wrong with the Bush Admin. and a request for donations. The actual problem is that I've never had any prior relationship with the ACLU whatsoever, am not listed in the phone book, and didn't particular appreciate their invasion of my privacy rights. I phoned them and my complaint/request to opt-out was met with bemusement. How hypocritical. They're a politically motivated activist group comprised of leftist lawyers. Nothing more.

Posted by: JP | February 3, 2006 12:06 PM

I don't think that the ACLU should be casting stones at anyone for violating privacy rights. In a highly ironic episode, I recently received some unsolicited snail-mail from the ACLU, addressed to my attention. The letter contained a three-page rant against what the ACLU believes is wrong with the Bush Admin. and a request for donations. The actual problem is that I've never had any prior relationship with the ACLU whatsoever, am not listed in the phone book, and didn't particular appreciate their invasion of my privacy rights. I phoned them and my complaint/request to opt-out was met with bemusement. How hypocritical. They're a politically motivated activist group comprised of leftist lawyers. Nothing more.

Posted by: JP | February 3, 2006 12:07 PM

Some days the Raw Fisher is a Nimby, some days he's a Libertarian, but all days he's totally lacking in relevant content. Your position that my life should be transparent to the Government and Corporations because their actions should be to me (but actually aren't according to our laws) is a travesty.

Yo, POST EDITORS!!! You guys are worried about the Post loosing status over FROOMKIN?

Posted by: Necromancer | February 3, 2006 12:09 PM

JP wrote:
"In a highly ironic episode, I recently received some unsolicited snail-mail from the ACLU, addressed to my attention [...] and didn't particular appreciate their invasion of my privacy rights."

JP, your privacy rights were not violated. Mailing addresses are public records. The ACLU paid for the stamp. No one forced you to read it. All you had to do is what I do with junk mail, rip it up and throw it away. To compare this to identy theft or insurance companies riffling through your medical records is silly at best. No private information about you was taken.

However I am for a no-junkmail list similar to the do-not-call list for phone advertising. But it would be difficult since mail is handled in bulk, unlike phone numbers that are handled by computer individually. Still, it would be a nicer world ...

Posted by: Sully | February 3, 2006 12:30 PM

I'll tell you what, Marc: when the government is actually held to account, and is open with all of its information, then talk about how we should be happy to be spied on consistently.

These liars running the government now - the ones who meet secretly with oil companies to determine energy policy; a criminal vice-president who gives no-bid contracts to a criminal company that endangers American soldiers and steals from taxpayers, the ones who start wars that kill hundreds of thousands based on blatant lies and oil profits - hell, this barely starts the list. The government right now is 1984; they're already collecting data on people like Quaker anti-war groups. This isn't benign data collection, you dunderhead. This is political profiling that whispers are already saying can grow into criminal profiling, so that potential criminals can be "stopped before they commit crimes".
What are you, Mr. I'm Such A Civil Libertarian - one of those secret White House "reporters" that's softening the public up for a permanent police state?
Civil Libertarian, my butt.

Posted by: Steve | February 3, 2006 12:31 PM

Few aspects of the American political system are more important than civil liberties. I fear that civil liberties are being eroded, partly because information is so much easier to access but also because of the Bush administration's eagerness to arrogate secret police powers for government (e.g., wiretapping without court orders).

What if a government agency or other powerful organization used information about your spending habits, who you donate money to, your magazine subscriptions, etc. to decide you are an enemy of their values, and to cause problems for you?
Of course, that's ridiculous and could never happen. Except when it does. Like COINTELPRO, J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy.

Posted by: A liberal in a conservative land | February 3, 2006 12:42 PM

I will tell you in advance I am a Moderate.

Unfortunately, SECRET nowadays means: “Get away with whatever you can as long as you don’t get

caught”. Back to the ‘60s and ‘70s I guess. As far as security and privacy goes, its not the

technology, it’s the controls that are of major issue. Having information available simply means many

people will abuse it.

In the general population, Americans' understanding of surveillance, security and privacy is

deficient and ill-formed. We are simply clueless about how easy it is to eavesdrop (sigint) and

collect information about us and manipulate it. Most people think of surveillance as the wiretap (ie,

phone). The Rove propagandists are going to exploit such ignorance unless we do something to educate


Intelligence agencies have true-to-life, real capabilities to perform technical collection, not just

from communications, but also from having access to a myriad of devices (not just you computer or

telephone). The limitations come not from the technology and methods, but from the enforcement of

laws and checks & balances. (Did someone say "FISA"? Did I hear the word "warrants"?)

We must educate Americans and take action before the present spying practice becomes precedent which

will eventually become permanent.

As Marc points out, it is not just US GOV and its intelligence agencies that should be pondered.

What about *private* intelligence agencies like CHOICEPOINT, investigative clearing houses like

Merlin and the numerous data aggregators/databases/repositories? What about private groups: Do GOP

grass roots organizations keep databases about people who donated to Democrats and subsequently

target them (vice versa on party applies)?

How do we know employers are adhering to FCRA and not participating in improper collection of info on

us as private employees? Are we to hold “big business” equally culpable? The last two years have

witnessed numerous breaches, internal fraud (eg banks, Enron) and information systems that are in

constant state of security remediation. SOX remediation goes on and on and on.

We may not be able to fully stop the attitude of “Get away with whatever you can as long as you don’t

get caught”. But maybe there are other ways? What about enforcing checks-and-balances? Controls?

Audits with real punishment? HIPPA audits with real punishment?

Maybe we can enforce data retention policies? Information that is collected that is not appropriate,

legal or even needed should be immediately destroyed. Maybe there are other ways to push proper


Expectation of Privacy? Darn toot’n ! HELL YES. In the pig picture, most of our individual

communications and information is privileged and subject to privacy. Yes, there are the “phone booth”

kind of exceptions. However, no government has the *automatic* right to spy on you and don’t let

someone convince you otherwise. FISA is there for a reason! Yes, abusers can spy and get away with

warrantless spying, but that does not mean that that is legal or ethical in the first place.

If I encrypt my communications, that certainly means I expect privacy. Yes, NSA can intercept and

decrypt, but that does not mean spying was the right thing to do in the first place.

This blog shows evidence of growing public outrage, particularly about the issue of the NSA being

missused by this administration. What might our response be?

With *private* intelligence agencies like Choicepoint and financial/healthcare institutions, perhaps

we need even more painful lawsuits?

Re NSA, is our public response to be along the lines of “encrypt everything” and use code words

everywhere? How about we the public create so many false positives and background noise as to slow

down or thwart the spying systems? How about – like Ann Coulter – we say that supreme court justices

should be given rat poison over and over again. Here is a false positive for you: ASSASINATE BUSH. Of

course I don’t mean that. But if it shows up again and again and again along with lots of other bogus

information like fake encrypted terrorist plots, would this not create mayhem? Maybe we the general

public without clearance should just start outing all kinds of suspected surveillance operations,

front organizations, sources and methods in order to fight back. Think of the damage that could be

caused. How about some truely sophisticated, coordinated and nastly leaks?

Of course we would not do the above because it wastes our tax dollars and impairs the very agencies

that are trying to protect us. But at some point, Americans might reach the outrage point and they

might want to revolt against the spying. My point here is there are likely ways to fight back, we are

just not at that point yet.

And so that is where organizations like the ACLU, EFF and EPIC come into play. There is tremendous

benefit from having these organizations fight on our behalf. Not the least is that we don't want

public outrage to get to the boiling point.

Probably has been posted here before, but check out "Chatter" by Patrick Radden Keefe. Its not

spy-geek, but it deals with the issues pretty neutral and thoroughly. I read unabridged

cover-to-cover. I am a moderate and I think both Left and Right will benefit from reading.

Steve Moderate

Posted by: Steve Moderate | February 3, 2006 12:43 PM

So you don't see anything wrong with releasing medical records? Then I'll be the first to be crass about it. What did your child have last year that made you take him to the hospital? If there's no problem with medical information being open to everyone, you should have no problems telling us. As I recall, you refused to do so in your column.

Brussels is right. You don't see a problem with releasing information because YOU have nothing to fear. I would imagine if you had a mental illness and was fired because of it, you'd feel a little differently. My company is self-insured - you'd better believe I asked questions to know who gets to see my information. My boss has NO right to see my medical records, and IMO, never will.

Posted by: ChickinMD | February 3, 2006 12:45 PM

Uhhh, did anyone actually click on the link to see what Marc was talking about?

I think the slipper slope argument being out forward their is a bit far-fetched. (But if you think people should be able to sue restaurants for making them fat, maybe you reap what you sow.)

I for one like not having to repeat my address every time I order from the same place.

Posted by: aflapr | February 3, 2006 1:03 PM

I don't understand all the "fuss" about the current state of an individual's privacy in the United States. It's already gone. Who honestly thinks that any piece of information about an individual is not already quite available to anyone who wants it. Get used to it...welcome to America.

Posted by: Bee Patient | February 3, 2006 1:13 PM

You seem to forget that the government officials work for *us* (the people) and not the other way around. The reason why we should demand transparency from our government is so that we can ensure they are doing our work properly, ethically and responsibly.

Posted by: Erik J | February 3, 2006 1:33 PM

You don't get it aflapr. If you want to deal with a restaurant that links your phone number and address so they know you everytime you call for a pizza, that is fine, as long as YOU KNOW they are keeping that information and as long as THEY DO NOT use that information against you, like giving your insurance company the number of pizzas you ordered this year so the insurance company can use that to raise your premiums. Or the food store that sends your shopping habits to your insurer or maybe your religious institution to see if you are violating religious eating restrictions.

Your information is yours. Do with it what you want. But because you do not care don't think that I do not have a RIGHT to care. Once you have seen your private information used against you, you will understand as your face glows red from anger and you wonder who gave them the right.

Posted by: Sully | February 3, 2006 1:36 PM

You may consider yourself a hardcore civil libertarian, but you don't write like one nor would most mild civil libertarians consider you even mildly libertarian.

Posted by: Don | February 3, 2006 1:51 PM

Bee Patient is correct- privacy is an illusion unless you have no job, no income, no bank account, no real estate, no car, no credit cards, no nothing.

However, most of your data is independent of your other data. It's the idea of putting all these pieces together that we should resist. The technology for keeping our healthcare information both secure and available when we need it certainly exists, but would best be addressed by each of us having our own health history smart-card rather than storing each person's data in a central location.

Posted by: Pixel | February 3, 2006 2:02 PM

Raw Fisher
You so don't get the point.So many americans like yourself are led to believe because the pay their bills on time and follow the rules that they're ok. So let the lookers look.Have you learned anything from the Nazis. The road we are on will eventually find its way to stopping the little Joe Citizen from doing anything freely. Why decide how much you can spend, How much you can make, How much you can travel, How much you can know. You are slowly becoming a willing subject, rather than a free and responsible decision making Human being.

Posted by: Yahanna | February 3, 2006 2:22 PM

Pixel's right. And the thing to consider is that the ACLU is not saying the nightmare is here today. They're saying we're heading toward the nightmare and need to begin stopping it. Today you have:

-Software that links registered phone numbers and addresses from the phone company being used by pizza delivery services so when you call, they have you address (seems ok right?)

-Police databases that have license plates linked to your name, address, phone number, arrest record ... (They keep that data to themselves right? Except that Patriot Act that requires sharing of data with FBI, CIA, etc...)

Medical Databases in the Hospital. The HIPPA Act requires that stays secure but is HHS investigating violations of HIPPA?

Your Life Insurance Company may have put you through a medical exam to qualify and has those records. Are those medical records?

Your Medical Insurance Company knows every doctor visit, and the reason. Is that protected?

When my daughter was born I got about 100 pieces of junk mail advertising everything for babies, especially that unhealthy formula that is not nearly as good for the baby as mother's milk. Now how did they know I had a baby?

My daughter received a coupon in the mail from an ice cream shop when her birthday was coming up (11 years old). How did they know it was her birthday? They even knew her age and of course her address? We suspect the school system gave it out since she just entered middle school, but we don't know and the ice cream store would not tell us. I hope the people who handle that info are not pedophiles.

I bought a book online from Amazon and within 48 hours had dozens of spam that I never got before.

I could go on. Anyone out there have other examples that will scare the dickens out of "aflapr"?

Posted by: Sully | February 3, 2006 2:25 PM

Another Point:

Its not just the availability of information, it is the disproportionate access to the information

that also makes a difference. This was the thesis of a Nobel prize economist.

It is a sad fact of life indeed that you can be honest, work hard, get an education and still get pushed back to the margin.

Meanwhile, people with money and access to superior information get ahead at our expense. Examples: Small entrepreneur vs. Bigger company, high $ broker's advice, top notch legal talent, "creative accountants", etc.
There will always be people and organizations who will exploit information to their advantage at your expense.

So while it might make sense at first to make all info freely available in order to prevent such disparity, we can't for the reasons other posters mentioned in this blog.

Steve Moderate

Posted by: Steve Moderate | February 3, 2006 2:55 PM

Fisher, stop calling yourself a civil libertarian. It's obvious that you have neither a full understanding of the natural rights of man, nor an understanding of the fact that the government is supposed to be subervient to the people - we are not on equal footing. According to the most basic tenets of libertarian thought, we have rights to life, liberty, and property. According to the founding fathers, no government or private group or individual has the right to take that from us. There is a world of difference between wilfully giving up private information and having private information sold to third parties without your consent (or even knowledge). And, specifically, there is a world of difference between insurers using internal data to charge different customers differently, and insurers handing that data over to other parties without the consent of their customers.

There is far more to being a civil libertarian - hardcore or otherwise - than standing up for freedom of speech. Your statements seem to indicate that we ought to put corporations and government on the same level as individuals; it's obvious from this alone that you don't actually know much about libertarian thought, or, if you do, you're ignoring quite a lot of it. Your personal information is your property, to do with as you choose. Under libertarian ideology, it is up to the individual and only the individual to say who gets to do what with that information. Public organizations like government and publicly-held corporations do not have these same rights. They are both creations of individuals, and have only the rights that individuals assign them.

Seriously, stop calling yourself any kind of libertarian, until you're ready and willing to admit that creations of individuals do not have anywhere near the same rights as the individual her/himself.

Posted by: PKD | February 3, 2006 3:11 PM

The reason government and corporations vs the individual should have different levels of disclosure is because the first two are the instruments of individuals and are prone to capture and abuse by select groups of individuals without transparency. Also as an aside, you are certainly no small-l libertarian, regardless of the branding of whatever political party you support.

Posted by: matt | February 3, 2006 3:27 PM

Do you oppose the secret ballot?

Posted by: John Bay | February 3, 2006 3:59 PM

A more likely use for retailers looking at your financial history then giving discounts would be price discrimination. If they can tell in the past you were willing to pay $40 for there $5 shirt instead of the usual $25 its as easy as day to pop that in a cookie on your computer. When you go shopping online they would then put a premium on all the prices they display for you. You shouldn't be so naive as to think that techonology will be used in the way you would like it to be. Or that the line you draw in the sand as to where privacy begins and ends is where it will stay.

Posted by: Andre | February 3, 2006 4:04 PM

I'll reiterate what others here are saying, more or less. Corporations are not people, they have no morals, no emotions, and are not really accountable for thier transgressions the way a person is. Therefore, we must be protected from them when our privacy is concerned.

Posted by: w creedle | February 3, 2006 4:31 PM


Please publish, in this column, your video rental record, detailed descriptions of all of the sex acts you have committed in the last week, the names of your children and their candy preferences, etc. etc.. Information wants to free, no! I'm sorry, but you're an idiot.

Posted by: guez | February 3, 2006 4:38 PM


whom do you know? because honestly, i don't how else you have this job.

while you sound like a real nice guy, you are one of the most clueless individuals i have ever encountered. you clearly have no idea what an all-knowing, all-powerful government is capable of. you probably are one of those little naifs who think 'this is america, it can't happen here' -- when in fact, it already has.

have you ever read a history book, son? or anything at all?

Posted by: drindl | February 3, 2006 4:47 PM

The really sad part is that there are readers (without critical thinking skills) who agree with your reasoning. When they vote, we get the kind of mess we have now. Limbaugh, Hannity, you, and others like you have a degree of responsibility for swaying these misguided voters. You are hurting America!

Posted by: ginner | February 3, 2006 5:07 PM

Privacy with medical record isn't just about personal issues, there'also key public benefits. If a person is worried a medical diagnosis might cost them a job or embarass them in front of their family, they are less likely to seek help and threaten to become a public menace. You want an example, look at what could happen in Kansas. A woman seeking advice on a sexual relationship will be less likely to seek help or answers to questions because of fear of getting dragged into the AG's witch hunt, and therefroe is more likely to engage in unsafe sex acts leading to more unwanted pregnancies and more abortions, exactly the opposite of what the AG wants. People with AIDS would be less liekly to seek treatment and less likely to get accurate medical information, and therefore more likely to pread the disease. You can't just look at these issues in isolation, you have to draw them to their logical conclusion. If the only way to guarantee our privacy is to keep things completely ot ourselves and not involve anyone else (to include doctors, lawyers, pharmicists, and numerous other experts), we won't do it, and that could be dangerous. But you don't care, because you obviously have nothing to hide, so that means it can do you no harm...right.

Posted by: Michael | February 3, 2006 5:31 PM

True story...Despite having no prior relationship with the ACLU, I continue to receive unsolicited snail-mail from that group of leftist activist lawyers. Most of the mail includes three-page rants against what the ACLU's director believes the Bush Admin. is doing to undermine privacy rights, and of course includes a plea for donations, presumably so I can receive more junk mail from the ACLU. The irony is that when I call them to opt-out of whatever mailing list(s) I'm on, i'm met with bemusement. in other words, the ACLU screams privacy in their shrill voice when it suits them, but when it comes down to practicing their own privacy policy, not a peep.

Posted by: JS | February 3, 2006 5:44 PM

Posted by: JS | February 3, 2006 5:47 PM

My boyfriend and I were very concerned about privacy rights, so we gave a donation to the ACLU last year. Guess what they did? They sold our donation information to other nonprofit organizations, innundating us with a ton of junk mail from various causes.

Needless to say, we are not giving to them anymore.

Posted by: Mary | February 3, 2006 5:50 PM

You're a moron.

Posted by: Paul | February 3, 2006 6:05 PM

To those of you who are talking down the ACLU because of alleged junk mail, I have a great idea - tell the ACLU about how upset you are. I'm sure they would be delighted to address this as an issue, if your reports are actually true and all.

Posted by: matt | February 3, 2006 7:17 PM

Big Deal!

A member of the ACLU puts together a "humorous" piece representing their take on an overbearing government. The ACLU respects that opinion, puts the piece on their web site, and you throw a hissy fit...

I'm glad the ACLU respected the opinion of one of its members - BIG DEAL!

Posted by: Sanuk | February 3, 2006 7:22 PM

I can't say strongly enough how much I agree with previous posters re the importance of privacy in medical records. Good health is more than a matter of "leading a healthy life." As Melissa points out, the consequences of lifestyle choices may affect individuals other than the one whose behavior is in question (e.g., children affected by second-hand smoke), and unfortunate early choices may have long-lasting effects even if the individual changes his or her behavior.

Further, even when there is a strong relationship between health and behavior, such as with smoking, that relationship is still only a correlation. Smoking doesn't guarantee lung cancer, and, more importantly, people get lung cancer (and other smoking-related diseases) without ever having smoked. The same is true w/ regard to diabetes and obesity.

Then, there's what should be the obvious fact that good health is also, to a great extent, a matter of good luck--in particular, how successful we were in picking our parents. And that "choice" affects all kinds of things---one's propensity to diabetes, depression, heart disease, and many, many other serious, chronic illnesses. Behavioral choices may reduce the likelihood that a genetic propensity will become manifest in disease, but they can not eliminate that probability. And once an illness has begun, behavioral changes may not be sufficient to reverse its course.

Some people already suffer discriminatory practices at the hands of health insurers because of the nature of their illnesses. Perhaps the most obvious example is mental illness, for which insurance coverage is much more difficult to obtain than for other illnesses. Given the prevalence of common illnesses such as depression and the availability of effective treatments, this is, to say the least, shortsighted. But the difficulties of these individuals would be compounded if their medical records were made available to their employers or, even worse, to potential employers.

Finally, it should be noted that, among Medicare beneficiaries, one quarter of expenditures occur in the last year of life, and this pattern has been invariant for the past twenty years. This means that a very high proportion of our health care costs is due to the disproportionate cost of providing health care for people at the end of life. Behavioral choices at age 30 or 40 have little effect on such costs.

I may be meandering a bit here (it's hard to assess what I've written when the text is in a small rectangle), but my general point is that who becomes sick at what point in their lives with which kind of illnesses is a very complex question. And the issue of what kind of treatment should be provided for which illness at which point in life is another very complex question. And neither of these issues gets to the enormous problems we have in terms of disparities in care related to race and income (it's easier to live a healthy life if you have more money) or in the delivery of healthcare.

Until some of these social, political, and scientific issues are sorted out, I'd just as soon that insurers don't have access to info re our personal behavior.

Posted by: THS | February 3, 2006 7:42 PM

To those who see the ACLU as leftist activists: You are wrong. The ACLU will take cases for anyone whose civil rights are being abridged. Perhaps the most famous counterexample is the ACLU's 1978 support of American Nazis who wanted to march through Skokie, Illinois, which was then a largely Jewish community. Their support for this hideous group was based on the First Amendment.

The ACLU works on behalf of anyone whose civil rights have been or are likely to be abridged. If the ACLU's arguements are more often consistent w/ those of leftists than of those on the right, it may be because the civil rights of leftists are more often threatened.

Posted by: THS | February 3, 2006 8:00 PM

A proposal:

Boycott any item that you receive via spam. Some spam is generated in bulk, meaning they are not targeting YOU, just everyone on a list they bought, but who cares. if you get the spam, do not shop there anymore and let them know why. If its a major company you cannot do without (I got spam from United Airlines and I live in a city that is a United Hub) call them and complain. Many companies may not know what is going on in their marketing departments. And believe me, marketing departments harbor the scum of the earth.

You can also send a note in the "postage paid" return envelope saying they are being boycotted. They may not care, but they paid for the postage.

Boycotts work. They worked well in the 60s and 70s to forced companies to act responsibly. But people have forgotten the force of the boycott, throwing up their arms saying there is nothing they can do against the corporate machine. Bahhh. Use your money as a weapon!

Posted by: Sully | February 3, 2006 8:16 PM

To all of you shocked that the ACLU gives up your information - I'm sorry that you were ignorant of their privacy policy, but it's up to you to find out whether or not they reserve the right to give your information before you give your information to them. I'm a member, but before I joined, I checked out what they did with personal information and decided it was worth it. Take a little personal responsibility instead of getting offended that you didn't bother to read what was out there for anyone to see.

Marc, you're truly naive. It's like you've been living under a rock for the past . . . forever, really. You misunderstand the Constitution, you misunderstand the fact that lawmakers and companies need to be kept in check by voters and consumers/shareholders, and you place way too much faith in the ability of others to use your info safely, wisely, and unselfishly. Here's a hint - if anyone sends you an email saying they're a Nigerian prince and they need your bank account details so they can wire you $500k or so, try to resist the urge to trust them, okay?

Posted by: anonymice | February 3, 2006 8:16 PM

I take it that the Fourth Amendment should be somehow abrogated. As I recall, the amendment states that..." the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, shall not be violated..." I could make quite a persuasive argument that papers and effects applies to electronic information. I guess that Mr. Fisher has conveniently forgotten this particular part of the Bill of Rights in his "civil libertarian" zeal. The whole purpose of the amendment is to provide that our privacy, including our personal information, not be invaded by government.

Please note that this provision applies to persons, and does not extend to government or corporations, neither of which enjoy such protected status.

Posted by: FWH | February 3, 2006 8:21 PM

In 1886, the Supreme Court decided a corporation has, in important ways, the rights of a person, and that its money is speech. That decision is at the root of all our problems today; the ideology behind it is what misguides Mr. Fisher. Even some of the leftiest among us equate capitalism and democracy. Until we stop entangling the two, we're doomed.

Posted by: snead | February 3, 2006 8:38 PM

THS: The Skokie intercession was indeed a proud high point in ACLU history. But I wonder if the organization today would support the right of the Nazis to march in Skokie or would instead conveniently categorize that form of speech as "hate speech" and therefore justify restricting it.

Posted by: Fisher | February 3, 2006 9:06 PM

I'm starting to think that you're just pretending to be this uninformed or dumb for fun. You "wonder if the organization today would support the right of the Nazis to march in Skokie or would instead conveniently categorize that form of speech as 'hate speech'"? Well, here's your answer (after about ten seconds of "research" on their website):

"The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content . . . How much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most. Speech that deeply offends our morality or is hostile to our way of life warrants the same constitutional protection as other speech because the right of free speech is indivisible . . . Where racist, sexist and homophobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech -- not less -- is the best revenge . . . Besides, when hate is out in the open, people can see the problem."
Sadly, you reading this may mark the first time that anyone has ever learned while reading your column.

Posted by: Brussels | February 6, 2006 6:17 AM

Yes, Brussels. That's indeed what the ACLU claims, but have you actually noticed the roster of cases the ACLU initiates? They veer heavily towards the far, far left and I too would be very surprised if they chose to take on many cases involving extreme right wing clients. Perhaps one or two for publicity's sake, but the ACLU knows very well who their main fundraising and client base is - the far left. BTW, there's a reason why the simple acronym "ACLU" resonates so negatively with a great number of Americans: many of their cases tend to cut against the grain of what many Americans deem to be legitimate constitutional rights and core values, versus imagined rights not present in either the federal or state constitutions.

Posted by: RD | February 6, 2006 10:47 AM

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