Individuals face a greater threat to their privacy from government than from the private sector. In general, people have little or no control over what information is collected, how much is shared or how securely it is stored. If a business refuses to keep private information about one's consumer preferences secure, consumers can take their business elsewhere. But they hardly have the same opportunity when it comes to the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Internal Revenue Service.
"Privacy" has often been thought of as a traditional American value, but the concept has always been difficult to define precisely. With the passage of time and the development of technology, particularly the ability to share information quickly and inexpensively, the issues involved have become increasingly complex.
In one of the largest financial-customer notifications ever, banks and other financial institutions are mailing information to every customer of record to clarify how they collect and use people's financial information and what options customers have with regard to the sharing of this information. Many bank customers have already received notices. The mail campaign is a result of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999.
A torrent of personal information about each of us is available now and experts agree that it will increasingly become available to others who want to use it. Society has become much more transparent due to the advent of inexpensive computer technology, storage devices and the Internet. This development has led to concerns about how this information might be used by employers, marketers, health insurers and others. Carefully crafted laws that promote clear disclosure (and enforcement) of privacy agreements can help people protect themselves without sacrificing freedom of speech.
Two dynamic Internet software industries are emerging. One is the data-mining industry, producing software tools that firms use to analyze consumer behavior and preferences on the Internet. The other is the privacy software industry, whose products are designed to stop some or all of this individual information from being collected and analyzed.
Policy makers often rely on scientific research, much of which is funded by the federal government, in making important policy decisions. Faulty research can result in bad policy.