could decline to participate."

The value of privacy as a good business practice has seeped into the economy. The report observed that "business has become more aware that privacy can be viewed as an important consumer benefit .... To apply this to the Internet, businesses that required too few privacy choices or required disclosure of too much information as a condition of participation would fail to attract customers, while those who paid close attention to privacy concerns would benefit."

The press was severely criticized by many as being the greatest invader of privacy and the journalism panel spent much of its time defending its practices. The report noted that "while many of the most egregious invasions of privacy happen with the tabloid press and their broadcast counterparts -- such as ambush interviews, reporters and producers who pay or cajole friends and family members to provide information, and the use of supersensitive sound or picture equipment to eavesdrop on individuals -- the press as an institution often seems to be more concerned with how to get sensitive information than whether such information should be pursued or used in the first place."

After spending several months reviewing the proceedings, I concluded that privacy and ethics are closely linked and what bridges the two are the principles of fair information practices. The report observed that "it was clear that the concept of fair information practices was universally accepted as the best existing model for ensuring fairness, accuracy, relevancy, timeliness and completeness in the collection, use and dissemination of information. Those terms by their very nature imply a set of ethical standards. It is certainly true that fair information practices by themselves will not resolve every privacy problem that comes along. But they are society's best articulation of how to approach privacy issues."

But, the report noted, "not all personal information is created equal as a matter of privacy. Legislatures have created an 'unwarranted' threshold for privacy in the context of government records, and that same threshold is probably useful in making other determinations. Where we live, where we work, where we send our children to school are all pieces of 'personal' information that some individuals may consider more private than others. But those choices are largely played out in public. Our neighbors know where we live. Most of us don't think twice about having that information published in phone books or city directories. However, other personal information, even if provided in the semipublic corridors of a hospital, is of a more personal nature and legislatures have often indicated that such information should not be public. On the federal level, this has included medical and personnel records at a minimum.

"The flexibility of such standards as 'unwarranted' was designed to clearly indicate that the disclosure of certain personal information would not rise to the level of an invasion of personal privacy. But as privacy becomes a more important concern to more people, those standards provide the needed flexibility to change as perceptions of privacy change. For example, if disclosure of home addresses was not considered an invasion of privacy today, society might decide that disclosure of such information would be an invasion of privacy tomorrow. If the societal perception changes, the standard will move to accommodate it."

Harry Hammitt is the editor/ publisher of Access Reports, a newsletter published in Lynchburg, Va., covering open government laws and information policy issues. E-mail: <>.


Harry Hammitt  |  Contributing Writer