Private Information

This may not be the biggest political story of last week, but there is a huge national dialog about just how private our information is today. Much of it is centered on Facebook and how their data played a part in Russiagate. For the record I am not a huge fan of Facebook, I own no stock in it, I believe I signed up once to help the malarkey numbers of a political campaign but I wouldn’t even know how to sign in. In fact I could care less if Facebook survives this scandal (I’m betting they will). This article is not a defense of Facebook, but I think the problem is much bigger than Facebook and the average American is largely defenseless. Let’s explore.    

To me Facebook is mostly a platform where people go to watch a modern day version of David Letterman’s stupid pet tricks or annoy people with the 21st century version of the circa 1960 vacation movies. In full disclosure, if I ever get my books published I will probably use Facebook to help sell them. I promise no pictures of my dog or grandchildren. During the 2014 and 2016 elections the problem came in when the Russians utilized the platform in an attempt to influence outcomes after they discovered that a large percentage of Americans get their news from places like Facebook.

When you sign up for a service like Facebook you give them a significant amount of your information. The companies try to cover themselves with the statement of the terms of their service that you agree to near the end of the enrollment process. In reality you have two choices: click agree or not get the service. There is no such thing as selective agreement or modification.

In some cases these companies sell your information to third parties. More often they “partner” with third parties who are able to obtain your information. The provider you signed up with makes the third party agree not to retain or further share that information; in some cases the third party agrees to destroy it after they are done with their “research”. How many of you ever promised your parents to be good? I rest my case.

Facebook, which I am not absolving of guilt, just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and is now in the spotlight. There are a plethora of equal or worse offenders. Most prominent among them are the credit reporting agencies. Not long ago it was revealed that Equifax, one of the three major credit reporting agencies, was hacked exposing the information of 143 million Americans. That is basically every American adult. I’m certain I was included and you most likely were also. Hacked or sharing with unrealistic expectation; the net results are the same. What particularly riles me about the credit reporting agencies is that they are paid to compile accurate information and protect it. In reality they do a poor job of both, are held harmless, and have the audacity to try to sell consumers a service to protect their credit and information. That’s right, they make careless mistakes, harm you and then turn around and ask you to pay them to rectify the situation while holding them harmless in the process.

When you apply for credit (including a mortgage) you have no choice but to supply a plethora of your private information to all three credit reporting agencies. Few Americans have the financial independence to go through life without ever applying for credit.

To go a step deeper into the process banks also get hacked. Try leaving blanks in a loan application and see how far you get. In fact, it is from those loan applications that the credit reporting agencies get their data.

Let’s say you are one of the fortunate few Americans who can go through life without borrowing. You still need utilities. In the process of signing up for them you have to give the provider personal information. This is simply a matter of practicality. They need to know where to install the service, bill for it and contact you. Again their agreements and terms are non-negotiable. They, like all of us, are subject to hacking and there is little to prevent them from sharing your information.

The utilities include cell phone service providers. In my mind one of the worst recent Supreme Court decisions was Concepcion v AT&T Mobility. In it the Court ruled that the forced arbitration clauses in service contracts are valid which negated the ability for the aggrieved to band together in a class action. Until and unless this ruling is reversed the consumer is at the complete mercy of the big corporate providers.

Retail stores have loyalty programs where you receive a significant discount in exchange for allowing them to track your purchases. I was still in college when these programs were in the idea stage. I remember thinking this will never happen. I was 100% wrong!

If retailers (very much including online retailers) track you purchases to give you better service and deals that is fine. In reality they are also building a profile of your habits and preferences. Who cares if you eat chicken or beef; however whether you read liberal or conservative books is a window into your mind.

The interconnectivity of your personal information and habits paints a picture of you. This can be complied by getting your information from several sources and combining it. Some of that is already done by retailers and banks. When I buy something online and often in person I pay for it via my bank. The checking account and credit card statements are a consumer portrait of me. For example, if I’m an NRA member, gun range member and read gun magazines there is a pretty good chance I’ll respond positively to a Second Amendment “defense”. That is exactly how 2014 and 2016 Republican campaigns overachieved.

There are people who make a living by telling you how to protect yourself from this but their methods are of little defense. Facebook is guilty of at least being naïve and probably much worse. They will pay a price, how severe is yet to be determined. The problem is much more systemic and larger than them. You can easily live without Facebook; not so much many of the other services outlined above.

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