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Finding privacy in the digital age


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Katie Paulson
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By Katie Paulson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, November 8, 2005
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Between snail junk mail promoting low APR rates on my next credit card purchase and personally addressed spam e-mail promising to help me last six hours longer, my own feelings of inadequacy morph into overwhelming frustration.

How did this company get the name, address and even other more secretive information (i.e. Social Security numbers) about me?

With consumer culture shifting more into online retailing, banking and other amenities offered with the click of a mouse, it's vital for the federal government to protect its citizens from feeling the wrath of malicious intent by both individuals and businesses.

Although the issue of regulating privacy may not rattle one's cage, especially those in college, it's something so pressing for our generation that it cannot be ignored. The moment that we let our guard down signifies the instance that we could potentially become another robbed victim on the information superhighway.

One of the major issues arising from modern consumerism revolves around the notion of identity theft. In its most basic definition, the federal government denotes that identity theft "occurs when someone appropriates your personal information without your knowledge to commit fraud or theft."

Credit card companies have bombarded advertising mediums with warnings regarding sharing personal information, keeping track of purchases and other general safety tips. But college students have more unique needs when it comes to protecting their personal information.

Most students live more lax lifestyles, allowing individuals to drift in and out of their homes on a daily basis. But this carefree attitude could potentially create a haven for individuals seeking to take on someone's identity.

Old credit card statements, garbage, logged-in computers and abandoned wallets offer core information about people, and when such entities are left exposed to the world, this begins the unfortunate and more often preventable cycle of identity theft.

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The moment we let our guard down, we could become another robbed victim on the information superhighway.
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However, this problem doesn't solely exist in the physical world. Dot-com companies such as Amazon and eBay thrive off solely online purchases. Yet, these electronic interactions increase the susceptibility for addresses and credit card numbers to slip through the proverbial cracks of communication.

In January, the Better Business Bureau found that in the previous 12-month period, 9.3 million Americans reported themselves as victims of identity theft. The cost incurred by the victims of such a crime remained a staggering $52.6 billion from 2003.

With the rise of identity theft, invasive direct marketing tactics and other questionable actions including the sale of personal information, companies want to create a more uniformed and standardized approach to this sensitive topic.

In order to combat this, Microsoft Corp. recently called for the National Privacy Law to ensure maximum benefit for consumer protection as well as the continuation of commercialism both online and offline.

Microsoft's proposal targets one of the most noticeable problems with current legislation: It exists in numerous forms in multiple levels, which creates confusion and the inability to properly enforce.

Brad Smith, senior vice president and general counsel for Microsoft, explained at the Congressional Internet Caucus, "The growing focus on privacy at both state and federal levels has resulted in an increasingly rapid adoption of well-intended privacy laws that are at times overlapping, inconsistent and often incomplete."

Hence, Microsoft advocates four core principles that it feels should be carried over to both online and offline businesses and services, including a baseline standard for data collection and storage, increased transparency regarding personal information, meaningful levels of control and minimum level of security for information in transit.

Perhaps this epitomizes the single most important aspect troubling privacy information today: Americans are usually unaware about where and how their information is used. Most of us voluntarily give our information without a second thought to the consequences it might bring.

However, this shouldn't cause mass panic when purchasing the next book from Amazon.com. Instead, with the aid of new federal legislation, Americans can simply increase their level of participation when sharing certain facts.

Other large-scale companies should combine their efforts with Microsoft in order to persuade the federal government to take the issue of sharing personal information seriously.

Until then, is anyone selling Andy Roddick's cell phone number?


Katie Paulson is a junior majoring in English and political science. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.



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