Privacy advocates have long complained that we have lost control of our personal information. They say our information is being collected, used and disseminated without our permission and that government and business use it in ways inconsistent with the purposes for which the information was originally collected.

Access advocates see strong evidence that the balance between privacy and access has tilted decisively toward privacy, that records that should be public are considered exempt because they contain personal information. Until the Supreme Court's 1989 decision in Dept. of Justice vs. Reporters Committee, balancing informational privacy against statutory demands of access under the Freedom of Information Act was done on an ad hoc basis that weighed the privacy interest of nondisclosure against the social utility of the requester's intended use of the information.

The court decided that the only public interest in disclosure intended by Congress was when the information shed light on government activities or operations, the burden of proof for which is an almost impossible standard to meet. Further, the court recognized a vested privacy interest in individuals whose public-record misdeeds or embarrassments had been long forgotten in some dusty public archive. They found, with good reason, that electronic databases containing such information were vastly more accessible and, thus, potentially more invasive of privacy.

After the Reporters Committee case, federal courts that previously found no protected privacy interest in basic information like names and addresses now found the exact same information protected because requesters could no longer show a valid reason for disclosure. Its long-term result was to set in motion a debate over whether various categories of public-record information should be closed because of privacy concerns. The debate's first significant victim was the state-controlled database of motor vehicle registration information, records that in most states were widely available for most purposes. The stated rationale for the Drivers' Privacy Protection Act was the misuse of records to track down and harass individual drivers.

The act was followed by moves in various localities to shut down voter records, land records and other categories of traditionally public documents.

Commercial Concerns

On the business side, the debate is similar, though any value of access is largely economic. Revelations about the ease with which Conde Nast was able to get its magazine subscribers to part with intimate personal information in answer to a readers' survey are underscored by stories about how quickly shoppers part with information about their buying habits in exchange for

discounts. Businesses want to know more about their potential customers, and use public-record information and data traded and sold between businesses to better target their customers.

All this requires mountains of personal information, and the real fear is that neither government nor business can or should be trusted with all that data. One option is to cut off the flow of data, but that seems unlikely in a world that revolves around information. Further, denying public access to such records does little to prevent government from misusing the information. Successfully turning off the tap of personal information flow would require prohibiting government from initially collecting the information. Politicians and policy-makers should move toward winnowing the amount of personal information currently collected and closely monitor any newly proposed collection programs.

Minimizing the collection of personal information is an excellent idea for government, but many businesses may thrive by collecting information. Except for public discontent, businesses have little incentive to slow the collection of personal data.

Fear of Abuse

What worries individuals most is that their personal information will be misused. This could mean abuse for illegal purposes such as stalking or credit card fraud, or for more benign purposes such as selling personal information to another company from whom the individual may not want solicitations. Perhaps some of these problems can be

Harry Hammitt  |  Contributing Writer