When we worry about who might be spying on our private lives, we usually think about the feds. But the real snoops are in the private sector -- and their snooping is even protected by law.
Take your phone records. The government has to get permission from the Justice Department, before it can look at them.
But under a court decision rendered in mid-August, your phone companies can sell your personal records to an outside marketing firm, with minimal notification to you. The marketers can find out where you called, when and for how long, and use that information to sell you other products.
By law, phone companies can't sell your records without your approval. The Federal Communications Commission defines "approval" as meaning affirmative consent: You have to be asked if you want your records sold, and you have to say yes.
US West, plus a host of other phone companies, challenged this interpretation before the federal court of appeals in Denver, and won. The FCC will appeal.
If the FCC loses, here's what will happen: You'll get a notice, in fine print, stuffed into your phone bill along with other notices, saying that your personal records will be sold unless you say no. Many customers won't read the notice. That will constitute "approval," and your records will be up for sale.
You have almost no protection today from businesses that want to use your personal records for profit. For example:
No federal law shields "transaction and experience" information -- mainly, the details of your bank and credit-card accounts. Your bank can disclose them, at will, to telemarketers or other commercial users. (A few states have privacy laws, notably Florida, but they're limited.)
Your bank may be selling your name, phone number, bank-account and credit-card numbers, Social Security number, account balance and credit limit, to marketers who hawk everything from credit-insurance products to video games. The bank earns a commission on everything you buy.
Our Social Security numbers are on sale by private firms. Among themselves, they've generally agreed not to sell to the public (that's you and me). But they ship your number to commercial firms.
Self-regulation doesn't work. A firm might publish a privacy-protection policy, but who enforces it? You can't even be sure that it means what it appears to say.
Take U.S. Bancorp in Minneapolis. Customers were promised, in writing, that "all personal information you supply to us will be considered confidential." Then it sold your data to a telemarketer.
Minnesota sued the bank for deceptive practices. The bank settled the case without admitting wrongdoing.
U.S. Bancorp, by the way, insists that it doesn't sell your information, it merely "shares" it -- and earns a commission. So you see how slippery so-called disclosure can be.
No law protects your activity on the Internet. Most Web sites openly (or surreptitiously) collect data about what you view and buy. It's sold to others who want to market to you, too.
The next frontier will be the data held by states. Personal stuff from driving records is already sold by many Departments of Motor Vehicles. Marketers also have access to your property-tax assessment or the price of your new house.
Now, they're pressing for individual wage information, which all states collect on everyone who is employed. So far, four states are providing it: Iowa, Minnesota, Texas and North Carolina. Pennsylvania and California backed off, after a public outcry.
Selling wage information isn't as bad as it sounds, at least under current rules. The states release it only to verify what you've said on a credit application, which could also be checked with your employer.
But the states hold many records that are already public -- say, wills and divorce agreements. Is it OK to publish them on the Internet? Could they be compiled, mixed with your financial data and sold for marketing purposes? Without a good privacy law, the answer is yes.
To reduce the number of telemarketing calls you get, you can add your name to the do-not-call list maintained by the Direct Marketing Association (P.O. Box 9014, Farmingdale, N.Y. 11735). There may be a similar list at your state's Department of Motor Vehicles.
Call 888-567-8688, to block new offers of pre-screened credit cards. You can also order your bank not to give your credit information to affiliated firms.
But that's about it. Video stores aren't allowed to disclose the names of the movies you rent. They're better protected than your financial life. Tell Congress there oughta be a law.