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Digital privacy: A curmudgeon's guide

Thinking about privacy protection is almost guaranteed to get you cranky. But GlobalPOV editor David Holtzman offers a handy data guide for the perplexed--just in time for the dog days of summer.

Last month I had the honor of being my county's first Fourth of July fireworks casualty.

I spoiled the dignity of the occasion by getting into an argument with the emergency room clerk because I wouldn't allow her to photocopy my driver's license in order to be trusted to pay cash. I was really getting into the argument until I looked around the triage room and saw that people were looking at me strangely; like I had just told a Linux Users Group, "Windows XP is really cool" or something similar.

Then it hit me...I had become a Curmudgeon, a cranky old privacy geezer.

Then it hit me...I had become a Curmudgeon, a cranky old privacy geezer.
There are all kinds of things to be cranky about. They say that Howard Hughes spent his last days as a germ curmudgeon. The reclusive billionaire, who virtually created the aerospace industry, invented the underwire bra and built the flying boat "Spruce Goose," died in his Vegas tower of malnutrition caused by peculiar eating and sanitary habits stemming from his aversion to germs. At the time of his death, his hair and fingernails had not been cut for years because he believed that cutting them would introduce new germs into his system.

Data curmudgeons feel like that about their personal information flowing into the "Bytegeist" of the burgeoning Internet.

There are five strategies that people seem to employ to tackle the personal data privacy problem.

In addition to the Curmudgeon, there is the Ignorer, the Avoider, the Deceiver and the Aggressor. Ignorers think that there is no problem; Avoiders go out of their way to not be in a situation where they have to give information; Deceivers deliberately give false information whenever possible; and Aggressors get indignant and talk about lawsuits or write nasty letters. Most people seem to respond as a combination of all of the above, depending on their mood and the circumstances.

Curmudgeons are principled--although it's easier for them to lie, they won't. They could avoid activities that they know might be a hassle, but they don't. Their personalities are wired in such a way that although they're obsessive about protecting their own information, they don't feel any need to organize other people.

Our country has a murky consensus of what privacy is. The homeland defense debate has muddied the waters even further.
Curmudgeons are busy and vocal people. They're the ones who refuse to give a home telephone number in line at Best Buy to make a credit card purchase, who question why the telephone company has to have their social security number and who stare at the little red light on their TiVo as if was HAL's camera eye in "2001: A Space Odyssey" ("I can't do that, Dave").

I fight this fight two or three times a week. I could do it more often, but I don't always have the strength and besides, it embarrasses my kids. It's like being out with someone who constantly sends wine back at a restaurant or always argues over every last item on a check. Sure you're entitled, but it's still embarrassing for your companions to have to sit there and listen to it.

Guidelines for data curmudgeons:
Just Say No to requests for personal information that doesn't appear to be needed for the service you're buying. Radio Shack doesn't need your telephone number to help you with a battery purchase. Your doctor doesn't need your social security number. I have had a remarkably successful "conversion rate" for saying "NO" and getting away with it.

Pay upfront for medical and certain other services, because you will probably be told that they need the personal information because the insurance company needs it. They don't, and you can almost certainly get the money back later by filing a claim.

Reject the Nuremberg Defense when you're told that the "computer system" needs it or that they're just following orders. Ask for a supervisor and make sure you get the person's name. Perversely enough, people act more human when you've pierced the bureaucratic veil that they hide behind as they attempt to dehumanize you.

Pay Cash if you don't want a purchase traced.

Don't use wireless devices for convenience because they're too easy to track. This includes toll-road fee collection systems such as SmartPass, cellular telephones, cordless telephones, GPS (Global Positioning System) navigators, Wi-Fi and home networking equipment.

Refuse to use Convenience Cards at supermarkets, drug stores and retail outlets. They're the first line of attack for direct marketers.

Where's this all headed?
Our country has a murky consensus of what privacy is. The homeland defense debate has muddied the waters even further. Technology has exacerbated the situation, first by making what used to be material for academic debate or works of fiction (remember "1984"?) feasible and second by forcing us to come to terms with how we feel, as individuals, about having personal information displayed in an almost anatomical manner for not only doctors but fellow patients to see.

My generation is probably never going to ever be comfortable with this data nudity. My curmudgeonly behavior is like trying to hold the split back of a hospital gown together, but I'm still compelled to make the attempt. Excuse me, I have to go and cut my fingernails now.