Personal Privacy in an Information Society. Record Keeping and Personal Privacy


One need only glance at the dramatic changes in our country during the last hundred years to understand why the relationship between organizational record keeping and personal privacy has become an issue in almost all modern societies. The records of a hundred years ago tell little about the average American, except when he died, perhaps when and where he was born, and if he owned land, how he got his title to it. Three quarters of the adult population worked for themselves on farms or in small towns. Attendance at the village schoolhouse was not compulsory and only a tiny fraction pursued formal education beyond it. No national military service was required, and few programs brought individuals into contact with the Federal government. Local governments to be sure made decisions about individuals, but these mainly had to do with taxation, business promotion and regulation, prevention and prosecution of crime, and in some instances, public relief for the poor or the insane.

Record keeping about individuals was correspondingly limited and local in nature. The most complete record was probably kept by churches, who recorded births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths. Town officials and county courts kept records of similar activities. Merchants and bankers maintained financial accounts for their customers, and when they extended credit, it was on the basis of personal knowledge of the borrower's circumstances. Few individuals had insurance of any kind, and a patient's medical record very likely existed only in the doctor's memory. Records about individuals rarely circulated beyond the place they were made.

The past hundred years, and particularly the last three decades, have changed all that. Three out of four Americans now live in cities or their surrounding suburbs, only one in ten of the individuals in the workforce today is self-employed, and education is compulsory for every child. The yeoman farmer and small-town merchant have given way to the skilled workers and white-collar employees who manage and staff the organizations, both public and private, that keep society functioning.

In addition, most Americans now do at least some of their buying on credit, and most have some form of life, health, property, or liability insurance. Institutionalized medical care is almost universally available. Government social services programs now reach deep into the population along with government licensing of occupations and professions, Federal taxation of individuals, and government regulation of business and labor union affairs. Today, government regulates and supports large areas of economic and social life through some of the nation's largest bureaucratic organizations, many of which deal directly with individuals. In fact, many of the private-sector record-keeping relationships discussed in this report are to varying degrees replicated in programs administered or funded by Federal agencies.

A significant consequence of this marked change in the variety and concentration of institutional relationships with individuals is that record keeping about individuals now covers almost everyone and influences everyone's life, from the business executive applying for a personal loan to the school teacher applying for a national credit card, from the riveter seeking check-guarantee privileges from the local bank to the young married couple trying to finance furniture for its first home. All will have their creditworthiness evaluated on the basis of recorded information in the files of one or more organizations. So also with insurance, medical care, employment, education, and social services. Each of those relationships requires the individual to divulge information about himself, and usually leads to some evaluation of him based on information about him that some other record keeper has compiled.

The substitution of records for face-to-face contact in these relation-ships is what makes the situation today dramatically different from the way it was even as recently as 30 years ago. It is now commonplace for an individual to be asked to divulge information about himself for use by unseen strangers who make decisions about him that directly affect his everyday life. Furthermore, because so many of the services offered by organizations are, or have come to be considered, necessities, an individual has little choice but to submit to whatever demands for information about him an organization may make. Organizations must have some substitute for personal evaluation in order to distinguish between one individual and the next in the endless stream of otherwise anonymous individuals they deal with, and most organizations have come to rely on records as that substitute. It is important to note, moreover, that organizations increasingly desire information that will facilitate fine-grained decisions about individuals. A credit-card issuer wants to avoid people who do not pay their bills, but it also strives to identify slow payers and well intentioned people who could easily get into debt beyond their ability to repay. Insurance companies seek to avoid people whose reputation or life style suggest that they may have more than the average number of accidents or other types of losses. Employers look for job applicants who give promise of being healthy, productive members of a work force. Social services agencies must sort individuals according to legally established eligibility criteria, but also try to see that people in need take advantage of all the services available to them. Schools try to take "the whole child" into account in making decisions about his progress, and government authorities make increasingly detailed evaluations of an individual's tax liability.

Each individual plays a dual role in this connection-as an object of information gathering and as a consumer of the benefits and services that depend on it. Public opinion data suggest that most Americans treasure their personal privacy, both in the abstract and in their own daily lives, but individuals are clearly also willing to give information about themselves, or allow others to do so, when they can see a concrete benefit to be gained by it. Most of us are pleased to have the conveniences that fine-grained, record-based decisions about us make possible. It is the rare individual who will forego having a credit card because he knows that if he has one, details about his use of it will accumulate in the card issuer's files.

Often one also hears people assert that nobody minds organizational record-keeping practices "if you have nothing to hide," and many apparently like to think of themselves as having nothing to hide, not realizing that whether an individual does or not can be a matter of opinion. We live, inescapably, in an "information society," and few of us have the option of avoiding relationships with record-keeping organizations. To do so is to forego not only credit but also insurance, employment, medical care, education, and all forms of government services to individuals. This being so, each individual has, or should have, a concern that the records organizations make and keep about him do not lead to unfair decisions about him.

In a larger context, Americans must also be concerned about the long-term effect record-keeping practices can have not only on relationships between individuals and organizations, but also on the balance of power between government and the rest of society. Accumulations of information about individuals tend to enhance authority by making it easier for authority to reach individuals directly. Thus, growth in society's record-keeping capability poses the risk that existing power balances will be upset. Recent events illustrate how easily this can happen, and also how difficult it can be to preserve such balances once they are seriously threatened.

This report concentrates on the delicate balance between various types of organizations' need for information about individuals and each individual's desire to be secure and fairly treated. It also recognizes, however, that government's expanding role as regulator and distributor of largess gives it new ways to intrude, creating new privacy protection problems. By opening more avenues for collecting information and more decision-making forums in which it can employ that information, government has enormously broadened its opportunities both to help and to embarrass, harass, and injure the individual. These new avenues and needs for collecting information, particularly when coupled with modern information technology, multiply the dangers of official abuse against which the Constitution seeks to protect. Recent history reminds us that these are real, not mythical, dangers and that while our efforts to protect ourselves against them must ultimately be fashioned into law, the choices they require are not mere legal choices; they are social and political value choices of the most basic kind.