Why Scoble Should Be Outraged — It's NOT Patty Dunn

by alec on September 23, 2006

Are you outraged by the actions of HP Chair Patricia Dunn?  A lot of people are, including Scoble.  Caught with her hand in the cookie-jar, so to speak, Patricia Dunn has been forced to resign over reasons of ethics and privacy.

Roll those big words around in your head for a minute.  Ethics. Privacy.

Patty Dunn is just the tip of the iceberg, and truth be told, what she did was undertandable albeit not legal.  Certainly one could argue that outing a leaky board member may have been the best thing for HP’s shareholders.

Robert, you oughta be a whole lot more outraged than you are, but not necessarily about Patty Dunn.  What you should be outraged about is that in America you really have no ability to protect your privacy.  None.  Moreover, corporate surveillance of the American public is rampant.  What Dunn did is only symptomatic of a much larger issue.

Have you ever given out your social security number as identification?  For instance, to apply for credit?  With 10 minutes of searching on Google I learned how to obtain your confidential credit report, and how to buy your social security number. I didn’t buy the report, but it certainly didn’t appear to be hard obtain that information.

That’s scary. Even so, it’s not nearly as spooky as the implications of some of the everyday things we all do.

Shop at Safeway, Albertsons or Costco?  Got a club card?  They know everything about how much you spend, and what you spend it on.  Maybe you’ve got a prescription for Lipitor, or any of a number of other cholesteral reducing drugs that you fulfill at their pharmacy.  Maybe you also have a fondness for marbled beef and red wine.  Safeway knows.  What will they do with that information? 

As it turns out, Safeway’s privacy policy is pretty good.  They acknowledge that they collect all this information, tell you how they will use it, and further commit not to share it with anyone except law enforcement.

Safeway does not sell or lease personally-identifying information to any other non-affiliated company, person or agency. Safeway will disclose personally-identifying information only if required to do so by law, or if requested to do so by a law enforcement agency in the context of an ongoing criminal investigation where such disclosure could be required by subpoena, search warrant or court order. Such request for information must be cleared by our Legal Department.

Costco’s privacy policy, however, offers no such assurances. Costco’s policy includes this statement.

we may disclose personal information in the good faith belief that we are lawfully authorized to do so, or that doing so is reasonably necessary to comply with legal process or authorities, respond to any claims, or to protect the rights, property or personal safety of Costco Wholesale, our customers, our employees or the public. Information about our customers, including personal information, may be disclosed or transferred as part of, or during negotiations of, any merger, sale of company assets or acquisition.

You know what’s particularly scary about Costco?  Like Safeway, they sell the nicely marbled steaks, the wine to go with them, and the cholesteral reducing drugs.  But Costco also sells health insurance. They know about your medical risk profile, and whether you’re taking care of yourself.

Albertson’s collects the same data.Their privacy policy tells you what they’re doing with your information today, but makes no assurances that they won’t share it, other than to say that they won’t sell it. 

That’s your personal information.  But Albertson’s and Costco are basically saying that it’s their data, and they can use it any way they please.  Is that ethical?

Deal with a bank?  Maybe you’ve got an overworked credit card that you’d like to keep private. Work out at a gym with a trainer?  Maybe you’re sensitive about your weight.  Buy books? How about that little book on dealing with … erectile disfunction … you bought last month… could be embarrassing if that got out!

Virtually every business collects personal information. In fact, some businesses, like Safeway, make it impossible for you to get a fair price for goods unless you divulge that information.  “What?  You don’t want to pay $5/gallon for milk?  Just get a club card, sir“.  You should have a right to know how they use that information, and to opt out of their data collection process, without penalty. 

Legislation has helped to provide reassurances to the citizens of many countries.  For instance, in Canada all businesses are required to publish a privacy policy, and the law says that you may not use collected information for any purpose other than what is written in that policy.  The EU has similar rules. Those rules makes sense.  Voluntary compliance, which is what you have in the US, doesn’t make sense.

So, forget about Patty Dunn, Robert.  Instead, push for sensible limits on what data corporations can collect, and how they can use that data.  Push your lawmakers to enact safeguards that will really make a difference to ordinary people, everywhere. 

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