Privacy and the PC

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PRIVACY AND THE PC: Mutually Exclusive Realities?

By Chip Berlet
Midwest Research
June, 1985

Prepared for the 1985 national conference on Issues in Technology and Privacy -- sponsored by the Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law John Marshall Law School, Chicago, Illinois, June 21-23 1985. Conference coordinator professor George Trubow. A project of the National Bar Association Foundation. Funded by the Benton Foundation


Access, Speed, Storage - as they increase in the world of the Personal Computer (PC), has there been a related decrease in individual privacy as it has traditionally been understood? Yes, but... The crucial issues in privacy and PC's revolve around the nature of individual privacy as it has "traditionally been understood" in the courts, in the streets, in government and corporate offices, and in our homes. Once again the wisdom of those who crafted the Bill of Rights is being tested; not on the basis of their essential grasp of fundamental principles of human dignity, but on our ability to come to grips with rapidly advancing technology and apply the principles embodied in the Bill of Rights to the problems posed by that new technology.


In the age of microcomputers and 2400 bits per second modems it is easy to forget the Bill of Rights was drafted to protect individuals from governmental violations of person, property and dignity such as those by the British troops a few decdes earlier when England was vainly trying to assert control over the boisterous colonials. This is a lesson we should not fail to consider when devising laws and guidelines dealing with computerized data bases and telecommunications systems. Today's Bulletin Board System Operators (SYSOP's) are merely the modern incarnation of the pesky and audacious colonial period pamphleteers like John Peter Zenger and Thomas Paine. And if it pains you to compare SYSOPS to Zenger, remember that time romanticizes our heroes of history. Read Paine's revolutionary rhetoric and look at Zenger's cartoon depicting apes in British soldier uniforms. Today Zenger might well be a political dissident running a controversial BBS while listening to audio tapes of The Police singing about surveillance.

Privacy rights, property rights and the government's right to enforce the law have always been engaged in an elaborate ballet mandated by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Let us take care that in protecting one right we do not trample on any others. Let us also remember that solutions to privacy problems that are predicated on the expenditure of funds for some technological Deus es Machina are not solutions at all, since they erect economic barriers which are incompatible with the free exercise of Constitutional Rights. Further, while those few computer "Hackers" who use their skills with malicious or fradulent intent have grabbed the headlines, the more important issues of privacy lie beached on the still uncharted reefs of the massive governmental and private data bases which contain personalized information; and for which no satisfactory and workable guidelines for privacy rights have been devised. The ability of these public and private data bases to exchange and match information on individuals raises questions about the nature of privacy in the 1980's and beyond. Which brings us back to access, speed and storage.


The privacy problems posed by computerized data bases were substantial enough when the systems were relatively few, slow, limited in storage capacity, bulky, and expensive. These systems required a priesthood of hardware and software specialists and a relatively large bureaucratic infrastructure to maintain them - and privacy violations could be tracked relatively easily. Now, an enterprising Hacker can plug together a fully operational computerized data base containing thousands of records and accessible over the phone lines to anyone with a computer, a phone line and a modem. The cost? One group I'm working with is setting up just such a system with equipment that is readily available on the used computer market for less than $350. The software was free - downloaded from another Bulletin Board System (BBS). The growth of, and increased access to computerized data bases mandates that we re-examine our traditional view of privacy. Database proliferation is astounding, especially in the arena of private individually-operated Bulletin Board Systems which are, in reality, mini-data bases. (See Appendix E).

Despite some gains, data base security, accuracy, screening of data base information, and protection of the privacy rights of those individuals which have personalized information in the data bases are areas that deserve further discussion by all sectors of society, not just the lawmakers. In the past few years we have seen substantial increases in the speed of computer data transmission, the speed of information processing, and increases in the volume of information storage available at decreasing cost. These technological realities will have a major effect on privacy rights in computerized societies. Data linkages and data base matches and comparisons that previously were simply too burdensome to imagine are now commonplace. Privacy concepts, which originated when paper and ink was the technology, and personal and real property the tangible items to be protected, must be expanded to consider the new computer-based technologies.

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