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When Not Meddling Itself, Government Protects Our Privacy

Want privacy? Get a typewriter.
Came across an article last week saying that’s what higher-ups in Germany are considering in the wake of reports that America’s National Security Agency is a bit too frisky in its “monitoring” of internal German government communications.
Patrick Sensburg, chair of the German parliament’s investigation into American spying, made the remark to reporters who, at first, thought he was joking.
Sensburg insisted he was not. And, further, that manual typewriters — old Royals and Underwoods — are on the shopping list, not electric or electronic models.
Russia, reportedly, stopped emailing and started typing its sensitive memos after whistleblower Edward Snowden’s explained how deep the NSA is able to dive into the Kremlin. Germany is following that lead. Seems a “Top Secret” manila envelope is more secure than the most secure, encrypted message sent into cyberspace.
Of course, it’s not just governments that don’t enjoy having others all up in their personal lives. Privacy is important to Mississippians just as it is to others.
But here’s the situation: Meddling by the NSA here and elsewhere notwithstanding, never in the course of human history have there been more laws to protect our personal information and never in the course of human history have there been more inducements to give it up.
As an example of the federal protections, suppose a dental assistant walks into a waiting room full of patients and says, “Good morning, Mrs. Smith, are you ready for your cleaning?” The assistant, for those words, could be fined $5,000. The law is HIPPA — the Health Insurance Privacy and Portability Act — and it imposes serious penalties on health-care providers who disclose any medical information of any type about a patient or client. Hence, an assistant trained in HIPPA will ask, “Are you ready?” and will know better than disclose the purpose for the visit. That’s a violation of medical privacy.
An example of Mississippi protections made headlines last week when a panel of the state Supreme Court correctly applied a state public records law.
Attorneys for senator-wannabe Chris McDaniel demanded county clerks allow them to inspect or copy poll books showing who voted in McDaniel’s primary challenge to Sen. That Cochran. The names are voters are public record, but as the law and the Supreme Court correctly said, other information — birthdays, Social Security numbers, drivers license numbers — are private. McDaniel’s troops can have the names, but private information must be erased or “redacted” from the copies.
As an example of the temptations, who wouldn’t share the interior measurements of their grandmothers’ belly buttons if it meant for 3 cents off a gallon of gas?
The genius of Kroger and other frequent shopper and discount cards is that people are enticed to provide information about themselves that, in turn, can result in the merchant catering its services to them as individuals. Chamber of Commerce types call this “win-win” because consumers get better values and merchants nourish more loyalty.
The tradeoff comes through fairly sophisticated data-mining that leads to incredibly personalized results. Does it bother me that Kroger knows, within a couple of ounces, how much 2 percent milk is in my refrigerator or when the grandchildren are likely to visit? No. But if it did, then the solution would be to cancel the frequent shopper card and, perhaps, go back to paying cash (because the same information can be “harvested” by people using credit or debit cards in many cases).
Add to the abundance of consumer information being gathered about us tons of other facts distilled from our Internet searches. We give that up pretty freely, too. The searches plus what we “like” on Facebook, who we “follow” on twitter. It all goes into a digital mill and our profiles become well-established.
The system’s not perfect. A student assigned to write a research paper on ants might be perceived as being interested in ants when he was just doing his homework. A person searching “cures for gout” may not have gout, merely know someone who does.
But the depth of detailed personal information we voluntarily disclose even as governments ratchet up more and more protections for us is simply amazing.
The only way to avoid this — as the Russians and perhaps the Germans are illustrating — is to go back in time.
Charlie Mitchell mugshot 2013Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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