278. "Why fear data rape?," USA Today, (May 20, 1996), p. 14A.
At first you are horrified. Your remaining shreds of privacy are being peeled away as if you are caught in a nightmarish forced striptease. Neighbors listen in on your cellular phone. Your boss taps into your e-mail and medical records. Companies analyze what you paid for with your credit card. Furiously, you seek new laws to protect yourself from data rape.
Not so fast. The chance of restoring old-fashioned privacy is about as likely as vanquishing nuclear weapons. The genie is out of the bottle. We must either return to the Stone Age (pay cash, use carrier pigeons and forget insurance) or learn to live with shrunken privacy. Laws already on the books mainly foster a Prohibition-like effect: Those keen to read your dossier do so sub rosa rather than in broad daylight.
More importantly, giving up some measure of privacy is exactly what the common good requires.
Take welfare reform, a hot topic this week as President Clinton and Bob Dole promote different plans. Some have proposed fingerprinting those on welfare, a move libertarians complain would make recipients feel like criminals. But would you rather continue a system in which undeserving individuals collect welfare or unemployment checks?
And what about safety concerns vs. privacy? The crash of a ValuJet DC-9 into the Florida Everglades that killed 110 people provides an example. Despite initial claims touting the airline's safety, records of the plane's performance show it had to return to airports seven times within two years because of varied problems. And the Federal Aviation Administration released an internal report that showed it had ongoing concerns about the airline's safety.
While the government is right to try to not alarm the flying public, don't passengers have a right to know?
Keeping computerized data about physicians kicked out of hospitals maintains a record that shadows them long after they have paid their dues. But would you rather return to the world in which doctors who caused the death of patients due to gross negligence could cross state lines and continue their practice with impunity?
Child-care centers and schools now can find out if security personnel they hire have a record of child abuse, a civil libertarian's nightmare. But would you rather have your child in a facility like the one in Orlando, Fla., where a guard made sexual advances to boys, because management learned after the fact that he was convicted of raping a 14-year-old? And you surely wouldn't want anyone to find out about your sexual transgressions. But, if you are a parent, wouldn't you like to know if the person who moved in next door was a sex offender, as Megan's Law now requires?
Does it make sense, in the hallowed name of privacy, to allow students who default on their loans and deadbeat fathers to draw a salary from a government agency just to avoid the use of computer cross-checks? Would you rather allow banks to hide the movements of large amounts of cash, or curb drug lords' transactions? Would you rather be treated with an antibiotic to which you are allergic as you are wheeled into an emergency room, or have a new health card display a warning?
Will all these new knowledge technologies lead to a police state, as civil libertarians constantly warn us? As I see it, the shortest way to tyranny runs the other way around: If we do not significantly improve our ability to reduce violent crime, sexual abuse and epidemics, an ever larger number of Americans will demand tougher action to restore law and order. Already, too many desperate citizens are all too ready to suspend the Constitution until the war against drugs is won. Let's allow the new capabilities of cyberspace to help restore civil order.
Is the new technological age without flaws? No. We are properly distressed when we are denied credit or learn that the wrong person has been arrested because of mistakes in data banks. But this is not the effect of a violation of privacy, but rather the consequence of data poorly collected and sloppily maintained. We need quicker and easier ways to correct dossiers rather than to try to ban largely beneficial new information technologies because they need fine-tuning.
Once one accepts that privacy is not an absolute value, we must look for the criteria that will guide us when additional trimming of this basic good is suggested. We should tolerate new limitations on privacy only when there is a compelling need (e.g., reduce the spread of contagious disease); double-check that there is no other way of serving the same purpose; and minimize the side effects (e.g., insist that we be allowed to refuse junk mail).
Frankly, most of us would rather prevent others from peeping into our records, but we can readily see the merits of tracking data about other people. Well, they feel the same way about us. Let those who have never speeded, always paid their taxes in full, or have no other reason to be under some form of social scrutiny cast the first stone.
Amitai Etzioni is the author of The Spirit of Community, Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda.