and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation



The New York Times
January 8, 1998

Nobody' Business
By William Safire

WASHINGTON -- Your right to privacy has been stripped away. You cannot walk into your bank, or apply for a job, or access your personal computer, without undergoing the scrutiny of strangers. You cannot use a credit card to buy clothes to cover your body without baring your soul. Big Brother is watching as never before.

Encouraged by an act of Congress, Texas and California now demand thumbprints of applicants for drivers' licenses -- treating all drivers as potential criminals.

Using a phony excuse about airplane security, airlines now demand identification like those licenses to make sure passengers don't exchange tickets to beat the company's rate-cutting promotions.

In the much-applauded pursuit of deadbeat dads, the Feds now demand that all employers inform the government of every new hire, thereby building a data base of who is working for whom that would be the envy of the K.G.B.

Although it makes it easier to zip through tolls at bridges and highways, electric eyes reading license plates help snoopers everywhere follow the movements of each driver and passenger.

Hooked on easy borrowing, consumers turn to plastic for their purchases, making records and sending electronic signals to telemarketers who track them down at home.

Stimulated by this demographic zeroing-in, Internet predators monitor your browsing, detect your interests, measure your purchases and even observe your expressed ideas.

Nor are Big Brothers limited to government and commerce. Your friends and neighbors, the Nosy Parkers, secretly tape regular calls you make to them, and listen in to cellular calls to third parties, enhancing the video surveillance of public streets by government and private driveways by security agencies.


Fear of crime and terrorism has caused us to let down our guard against excessive intrusion into the lives of the law-abiding. The ease of minor borrowing and the transformation of shopping into recreation has addicted us to credit cards. Taken together, the fear and the ease make a map of our lives available to cops, crazies and con men alike.

(Here comes the "to-be-sure" graph.) Crime is real; some court-ordered taps of Mafiosi and surveillance cameras of high-violence playgrounds are justifiable. So are random drug and alcohol tests of nuclear-response teams. The S.E.C. should monitor insider stock trades, and no sensible passenger minds the frisking for bombs at airports.

But doesn't this creeping confluence of government snooping, commercial tracking and cultural tolerance of eavesdropping threaten each individual American's personal freedom? And isn't it time to reverse that terrible trend toward national nakedness before it replaces privacy as an American value?

Here's how to snatch your identity back from the intruders:

1. Sign as little as possible. Warranty postcards are for suckers (your sales receipt is your guarantee), and sweepstakes are devices to show your gullibility to purchasers of your address. Throw away all mail with Ed McMahon's name on it. (I just chucked a document assuring me of being a winner of $10 million. Easy go.)

2. Write your local legislator demanding that a Privacy Impact Statement be required before passage of any new law, and call on your local U.S. President to convoke a White House Conference on Privacy, thereby demonstrating the sleeper issue's nonpartisan political clout.

3. Use snail mail, harder to intercept than E-mail. And resist mightily requests for your Social Security number. If you're a lawyer, take the state to court over drivers' fingerprinting. When a telemarketer calls, shout an imprecation and hang up. Get your kids to show you how to "disable a cookie" and download free software that lets you surf the Web in anonymity.

4. Persuade a foundation to issue a quarterly "Intrusion Index," measuring with scholarly authority the degree to which your privacy is being violated by pols, polls and peepers.

Above all -- 5. Pay cash. Costs less than borrowing and keeps you in control of your own records.

Remember: Cash is the enemy of the intruders. Use it to buy back your freedom. 

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