Cybereye | Privacy matters

Commentary: How do you put a price tag on privacy? And how do you determine who pays?

William Jackson


In a life lived online, it is easy to get the feeling we are living in a fishbowl. But according to Information Technology and Innovation Foundation President Robert Atkinson, 'We're a hundred times more private today than we were in colonial times.'

Atkinson spoke at a forum on digital privacy hosted by Congressional Quarterly. Hyperbole aside, his point was that 200 years ago nearly everyone lived their lives in small communities where everyone was known. To concerns that a digital economy is stripping away our privacy, he responded that there have always been privacy concerns about new technology ' from cameras in the 19th century to miniature electronics in the 1950s.

'We learned to live with new technology, and nothing happened,' he said. 'We will learn to live with the next technology.'

To those who would turn to legislation to ensure digital privacy, he warned, 'Privacy regulation is not free.' If companies are not free to gather and exploit data, innovation and competitiveness will suffer.

True, there is no free lunch. But a question not asked or answered at the forum was, who pays the price and who receives the benefit?

Atkinson speaks for the IT industry. Its position has always been that anything that costs a company costs the consumer, and anything that benefits a company benefits the consumer. This is the basic idea behind trickle-down economics, and if the current economic malaise has taught us anything, it is that trickle down does not work that simply. Just because the IT industry can find ways to profit from the data it gathers does not mean that it is a good deal for the people from whom it gathers the data.

Even if you believe that government regulation should be tried only after everything else has failed, the huge profit potential from the unfettered exploitation of personal data is a strong argument that there is a legitimate need for regulation. After all, when was the last time any industry voluntarily eschewed a profit?

The problem with such regulation lies in how to define privacy and how to separate appropriate uses of personal information from inappropriate exploitation.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), co-chairman of the Congressional Privacy Caucus and ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has what he calls a simplistic viewpoint on privacy: 'Nobody in the world has a right to know anything about me unless I want you to.'

It is not a legal definition, he admits, but it works for him. He said he is all for free enterprise and making a profit, 'but we don't exist to be a dataset.'

Barton has a more than legislative interest in privacy. His personal records were among those on a National Institutes of Health laptop PC stolen earlier this year. He said he is committed to making sure that privacy requirements are tightly integrated into a health IT bill the Energy and Commerce Committee is due to mark up.

'It is a real opportunity to put some privacy protection into your health records,' he said. But he acknowledged that attempts to define privacy are likely to run into problems. 'When you try to put it into legislative language, it becomes very difficult.'

And yes, there is a cost to the consumer. There is the burden on the citizen to decide how, when and to whom records should be available. Medical records, like most other forms of data, are of little or no value if they are never used.

There are a lot of details yet to be worked out on privacy in the Digital Age, and we probably will never get things completely balanced. But a good place to start is to acknowledge that new technology can be a threat as well as an opportunity, that the ability to generate a profit does not trump a right to privacy, and that individuals will have to assume some of the burden of controlling how their data is used.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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