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Privacy Please

Don't let the states, or techcos, hawk your rights



Six years ago, I moved to Colorado Springs to help start an alternative newspaper (this one) in an angry political climate. I knew about the nasty hate mail local reporters got. And I, frankly, was a bit intimidated by the "Draw!" stories I'd heard about the region. A New Yorker, I was used to face-to-face, word-driven conflict resolution -- not anonymous, cowardly hate letters and the threat that the next fella might pack a Glock.

So I did what any self-protecting reporter might do: When I got my Colorado drivers license and registered my car, I requested that my information be kept secret. The Department of Motor Vehicles acquiesced, but not without asking why, looking at me funny, making me do special paperwork -- and charging me money. Odd, I thought: Did it really cost them to keep my info quiet? But I submissively paid the tariff.

Likewise, to unlist my telephone number, I had to pay U.S. West a fee every month. Where's the logic? How could it cost the company not to include my phone number and address in the directory? But I pick my battles with annoying institutions -- any monopoly qualifies -- so I dutifully paid my fee.

It wasn't until this week -- here comes the Duh! part -- that I recognized the con. I was drowsily listening to NPR's "Morning Edition" when a segment aired about the Driver's Privacy Protection Act, which is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. The 1994 federal law bars states from disclosing -- and, thus, peddling -- personal information found in our motor-vehicle records, a multimillion-dollar industry for our lovely state bureaucracies.

The states are appealing, saying it's a "states' rights" issue, that the federal poobah has no right to tell its 50 dependents (my word) what it can't do. My eyes sprang open in disgust. Were the states really marching their anti-federal argument to the Supreme Court on the backs of individuals' rights -- over the right to sell our private information? Yes, Virginia, they're again pulling out the states'-rights flag to hide despicable behavior.

I'm mortified over this. While I can see a need to reduce the federal bureaucracy, you've got to pick your battles, states! This is obviously a lucrative practice, but that in no way makes it OK for Colorado, for instance, to profit off violating individual privacy rights and even putting people's lives in danger. (Actress Rebecca Schaeffer's stalker killed her after obtaining her address from California motor-vehicle records.) The money is no excuse. State officials could gamble tax dollars at Cripple Creek, too, in the name of fattening the trough, but that wouldn't fly, either, huh?

At that moment, I realized why I'd paid a premium to guard my personal information. Kept secret, it was worthless to the state. Colorado needs to recoup its losses somehow. A few bucks from me are better than nothing from the highest bidder.

Fortunately, Americans are starting to sniff out anti-privacy scams, interestingly thanks to the Internet. Although we've been naively trusting institutions like the DM-friggin'-V and even phone companies, the paranoia generated by a new medium is focusing our attention. And, fortunately, many folks are making these questions retroactively. Who's screwing us already? Yes, we're worried about our privacy now; all the while, it's been violated over the years while we snoozed.

It is time to wake up and be vigilant about our privacy. All those don't-worry-privacy-is-pass geeks -- like Sun Microsystem's Scott McNealy -- should be told, in essence, to kiss our collective butts. Sure, new technologies allow the collection and sorting of information. Sure, we might be OK with some "profiling," a la our King Soopers card (maybe).

But if any standard is needed to help us limp across that hackneyed 21st-century bridge, it's this: ASK us. If a state, or a Web site, or Microsoft wants to hawk our addresses, they must get our permission. And if they're not willing to do that -- apparently, they are not -- then this is one place we should lay out a welcome mat for Big Brother.

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