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Privacy. More and more we are reading stories about who has our personal information and what they are doing with it. Like a page out of George Orwell's 1984, we are led to believe that there are huge databases out there, compiling our most intimate details, cross referencing our most private choices in order to bombard us with junk mail, junk email, and the always inconvenient telephone solicitations. Whether it is information that is collected about us over the internet, data used by banks or insurance companies, or an abundance of information collected by the government - a lot of people know a lot about us, and that has people worried.
But what is the debate over privacy really all about? Are we concerned whether our personal information is really our own - or are we caught up in this controversy simply because we enjoy the convenience of the electronic age but hate the annoyance of mass marketing? Over the next year, politicians from Olympia, Washington to Washington D.C. will try to answer these questions in a hodge-podge of laws and regulations that will probably only serve to confuse matters more. In the meantime, take matters into your own hands and follow a few simple steps to help you get control of your personal information.
Step one is to read the fine print. Already, most financial institutions have some form of privacy policy. Navigating the cumbersome options, often in fine print, can be difficult. However, financial institutions will soon have to provide you with clear, easy to read ways to keep your personal information from being sent to non-affiliated companies for marketing purposes. In the meantime take a few minutes to look at the information you are provided in your credit card or bank statement. Somewhere there is likely to be a "privacy statement" and a way to tell the bank or department store how to keep your name off those pesky marketing lists.
Step two is to go through the same exercise when you are online. When you have email solicitations, don't simply delete them. Use the opportunity to tell the marketer that you do not want to hear from them again. Usually, there will be an opportunity to reply to the email solicitor and tell them not to send you any more messages. Take them up on their offer. On larger sites, there will be a link to a "privacy policy". Read it and take the time to understand it. A company's privacy policy is often the first line of defense - assuming you need defending - against inappropriate or annoying use of your personal information.
Step three is to periodically check your credit report. While you will know on the next statement if someone has misused an existing credit card, you may not find out if someone has stolen a preauthorized credit card or checks that have been sitting in your mailbox. Always report unauthorized uses immediately.
Finally, take stock in what you really expect your privacy rights to be. Is there really a problem with a credit card company giving your name and phone number to a marketer when you haven't taken the time to have an unlisted phone number in the phone book? If you are concerned about account numbers getting into the wrong hands, a multitude of state laws dealing with "identity theft" exist to prosecute those who have illegally used account numbers or other personal information. In addition, many states have laws protecting consumers from the unauthorized use of medical information and do not allow its use unless there has been an authorization signed by the patient. Once again, most medical record privacy laws have stiff penalties - sometimes even criminal penalties - for the misuse of this information.
So is there really a privacy problem? Certainly the media and politicians want you to think there is. When asked, most people feel that they should be able to control the use of their personal information. But these same people do not consider privacy protections to be one of the most important issues facing the nation. Nevertheless, we continue to share more and more of our personal information with more and more businesses, individuals, and even the government. While it troubles us that so many know so much about what we do, we also do not let that get in the way of enjoying the benefits of the conveniences of electronic commerce, online banking, or consolidated financial statements. If we use the tools already at our disposal, the information we need to make our daily choices as consumers will continue to flow and the dangers of misuse of information will be minimized.