For Sale: Personal Information About You

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Gary T. Marx

The Washington Post, Dec. 11, 1989

As a "preferred customer" of an oil company, I have recently been invited to join---for the price of $36 a year---a program called CREDENTIALS. This "service" will permit me to review a copy of my credit report and receive automatic notification when anyone receives a copy of my credit file. A major marketing campaign is now underway to convince the credentialed public that it needs this "revolutionary new credit tool" to "take control" and "maintain vigilance over your privileged credit status."

American entrepreneurs are of course to be admired for their product development and marketing skills. Modern economies thrive on creating demand, rather than responding to it. One can only smile at the marketing of pet rocks and 61 kinds of mustard.

But the offer of a "Charter Membership Certificate to enroll in CREDENTIALS" goes too far. It's bad enough to take an individual's personal information (e.g., data on credit, employment, consumption, life style, age, marital status, address, telephone and Social Security number) without permission and sell it. It's even worse, though, when this is done without the knowledge of the subject and with legal immunity for the seller for any invasion of privacy, defamation of character or negligence the subject may suffer on account of a false credit report. Then to turn around and charge the subject a fee to see what it is that the company is telling others is truly outrageous.

The damage is compounded by deceptive advertising, which makes the consumer think that only by enrolling in the service is it possible to obtain this information. In fact, the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970 already guarantees such access. Nor are things helped by the fact that credit bureaus also sell data to mass marketeers who bring us junk mail, fax and phone messages.

A consultant has been defined as a person who charges for telling you what time it is after borrowing your watch. So too with this new service. As participants in the economy, we create data about ourselves--finding employment, purchasing goods at the supermarket, taking out a mortgage, renting apartments, ordering goods and services over toll-free lines, putting travel expenses on a credit card, using medical services, filing insurance claims, paying or disputing bills and using the legal system. Credit bureau entrepreneurs then package and sell this information, ignoring us in the process (except as customers for information about ourselves).

Consumers unfortunately face a system of institutionalized blackmail, which may make this new service attractive. One can hardly function in contemporary society without a credit card (just try to rent a car, reserve a room or write a check without one). In most states the individual has little control over the distribution of personal information or protection from erroneous records. One major credit bureau reports that a third of consumers who see their files find mistakes. Most persons are note aware of the extent to which their "data image" in distant computers affects their life chances.

Of course creditors, employers, landlords and health service providers have a legitimate interest in learning about potential clients, just as clients have a legitimate interest in learning about them. Appropriately used and available in an equitable fashion, data bases have an important role to play. But a society that treats personal information as a commodity to be sold to any bidder by whoever happens to intercept the data flow is a society that puts consumers at a disadvantage. If we are to treat personal information as a commodity, it seems only fair that those to whom it pertains ought to control it and share in financial gain from its sale.

We need to create an atmosphere in which the imbalance between consumers and commercial data scavengers is redressed. For starters this should include federal and state legislation that 1) prohibits the distribution of personal data without the expressed consent of the subject ( a practice common in some European countries), 2) establish strict data quality standards with audit provisions and penalties 3) creates some type of royalty system for compensating individuals (or consumers en masse) when personal information about them is sold, and 4) creates a privacy ombudsman like those found in Canada and Australia who can aggressively pursue consumer interests with respect to data questions.

The real issue is not this questionable service. It is the anti-consumer environment that makes it possible. Indeed this is a clever offering, even if it does share in the logic of the protection racket that seeks to help the client avoid a problem by paying the provider not to create the problem. Unlike the protection racket, this offering is legal. But as Justice Potter Stewart said in a different context, just because there is a legal right to do something does not mean that it 's the right thing to do.

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