The information age

Not so long ago, I wrote about how, every year, American residents have to file their tax return. The federal government over here is preparing changes to the tax regulations which will allow the accountants that prepare and file these returns to sell the information obtained.

Traditionally, tax information has been almost sacrosanct. Never before has a government tried to sell this kind of personal data.

It's not all bad news, though. The new regulations require written consent from the taxpayer, but there are those that fear that such a consent form will simply be slipped among the large pile of similar forms that are signed en masse when filing

Supporters say that the fears are baseless because regulations require "written informed consent", but opponents argue that not only would it be difficult - if not impossible - to prove that the taxpayer was not properly and legally informed, especially if the form required is phrased properly, but that most taxpayers would never know if their information was sold, whether or not they gave consent, informed or otherwise.

Still other concerns are that some accountancy firms might offer a discount for consent, or might even make consent a requirement for filing.

The reason why corporate America wants this is simple. Imagine how much it would be worth to a business to know that a prospective customer is about to receive a cheque for a tax refund, and to know exactly how much it is going to be worth. Information already available might tell a retailer that I*, for example, have recently purchased a new computer, TV, DVD player, but have not recently purchased a home sound system. Add in the tidbit of information that I'm about to receive a cheque for $2,000 and you have a golden advertising opportunity. Or, if you know, through the DMV, that my car is seven years old, and you also know, through my credit card records, that I've had it in for repair three times in the last year, the amount of my tax return could be invaluable in deciding what kind of payment terms you'd want to offer me.

The reason why most Americans don't want this is just as simple. It's personal, private information that is supposed to remain confidential. I don't want to help advertisers hawk their wares in a more targeted way. I want to decide for myself what I buy. What's most worrisome is that every snippet of your private information that's out there and available makes it that much easier for a criminal to steal your identity, and identity theft already costs Americans millions every year, as well as the fact that it can take months or even years to undo the damage done.

Some people are claiming this is just another example of how the current administration wants to screw the ordinary American. Others are claiming it's just another example of how the government is controlled by Corporate America. Some are saying both, but not the same time as that would be an impressive linguistic feat.

Personally, I think it's another example of how history will come to view this period in time. The latest part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st mark the true beginning of the information age. At no point in human history has information been so valuable and traded so readily. And at no point in history has so much information been available about each and every one of us. Almost everything about our lives, from our spending habits to our criminal records, is recorded and collated somewhere by someone, and with more and more centralisation, more and more of that information is under the control of a smaller and smaller number of entities.

Sure, we're a ways away from the sci-fi nightmare of having our every choice dictated to us based upon some computer's interpretation of our needs and desires, but so much of our lives is already dictated by what sort of information one institution or another has on file about us.

And I've consciously used the term "our information", but is it ours? If I buy a new car, is the fact that I've bought a new car "my" information or the car dealer's? What about my credit card records? Are they "my" information or my bank's?

Clearly, ownership of information is recognised in society, because information can and is bought and sold, but does information that pertains to me automatically imply that I am the owner? In the case of medical information, this is supposed to be the case, but what about other areas? Recently several cell phone providers here in America were revealed to have been selling customer's records over the internet. But does that information belong to the customer or to the company? Did those companies do anything wrong in selling records, even if they are about personal, private information?

In the end, is the amount of privacy we have only going to be dictated by how much the business world is going to allow us?

(which means, of course, how much you pay for)

Maybe the way forward, the thing that consumers really want, is companies that will step up and take all possible measures to protect privacy, making and keeping legally enforceable promises to do so. People would flock to these companies over those companies that only want to use our information to make money.

Who knows?

*all information offered here is for example purposes only and none of it is accurate or even reflects my actual financial status.

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