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  DO NOT DISTURB: THE BUSINESS OF PRIVACY.  
   
   
 

What's worse then getting catalogues in the mail? Getting catalogues that have nothing to do with me, like the baby furniture one that arrives every two weeks. They not only mock my life but also let me know someone has bought and sold my personal information.

This is why I take the time to reply to these questions on applications: "If you don't want us to share your information, check this box."

Except it's never stated that clearly.

This privacy matter has gone beyond annoying telemarketing phone calls made by anonymous machines. It has gone beyond a random dance club in Miami refusing to unsubscribe me from its email list even though I never was there or signed up for it. It has come to this: In with my credit card statement this month, along with an insert of gifts to mail away for, along with an insert of magazines to buy, along with part of the envelope being an ad for cheap jewelry there was a folded booklet of information called "Our Privacy Notice."

It looks as unclear as it sounds.

 
 

Basically, disguised in "keeping customer information secure," it informs me that the company can disclose my personal information to third parties.

Apparently, it's my responsibility to tell a company I'd rather keep personal information, uh, personal. It takes vigilance and time available only to the elderly and unemployed to keep these companies in check. To protect my credit card information, I have to "fully fill in" boxes and add my name, address and account number (which also means getting out my credit card). A small scissor icon and some dotted lines mean I have to clip the form. I have to address an envelope, stamp it and mail it.

Yeah, so I just sound lazy, but an aggressive sales tool requires a defensive reaction. Without following these time-consuming steps (did I mention the scissors?), I'm destined for more catalogues. Since not as many people are as neurotic as I, supposedly private information must be flowing through the marketplace. Unless people respond, these companies get to know us and sell us, leaving us with more advertising and little control over our personal purchasing information.

Of course I don't want my information shared -- especially when it comes to banking, finances and health insurance. Why then even ask me if I do? Blame the GLBA -- the GLB being the last initials of the Congressmen who authored the bill (Messrs. Gramm, Leach and Bliley) and the A telling us that it is an Act signed into law. It was created as the Financial Services Modernization Bill in 1999 so that financial companies, purposely regulated and kept separate by Congress since the Great Depression, could merge. Now

   

 

The Private File

Besides coloring, cutting and pasting the forms, here are some good privacy resources. Remember: Just keep it to yourself.

Ralph Nader & Co. help you to opt-out, even if you've tossed your forms. You can also sign a petition supporting opt-in legislation.

Can't sleep? Read the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in all its boring glory. Scroll down to Title V - Sec. 501 to Sec. 527 for the part that pertains to consumers. Or read a "for normal humans" translation.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has some good tips on handling the GLBA and more news about how technology can be creepy.

Tired of unsolicited credit card offers? Worried about the huge potential for identity theft that comes in every envelope? Call 1-888-5OPTOUT to let the major credit reporting bureaus (TransUnion, Eqifax and Experian) know that you'd prefer to be left alone with the debt you've already accrued, thank you.

   
 

banks, insurance and financial service companies (including brokerage houses, tax preparers, mortgage companies, and more) can buy each other and therefore, share your information. The GLBA calls it 'modernizing.' I call it an eerie step through the Big Brother door giving mega-corps the ability to use our own information against us. (Their title is snappier.)

When President Clinton signed the GLBA into law problems with identity theft and telemarketing exploded. One bank "accidentally" sold millions of credit card numbers to a porn site. One bank gave information to an affiliate whose subsidiary sold investments to people like senior citizens who, cliché or not, lost their savings. Notice the "affiliate" and "subsidiary." It's important because that's two degrees from the original company the information was intended for.

I love how those TV commercials about identity theft show a guy in his home stealing 'your' identity as if we should be suspicious of the person lurking down the street somehow getting hold of our information in some crazy sneaky way. The real worry is the companies that are selling us out in the first place.

So, this is why they ask if I want my information shared: Not because there's any real integrity to the GLBA protecting consumers, but because it's now a requirement that these companies tell us what they've been up to. A part of the GLBA called Title V was added to address these privacy concerns. Title V requires that companies notify us of their privacy practices once a year and give us the opportunity to opt-out of their sharing our information.

It's no simple "in" or "out" though, people. Opting-out only limits the sharing with unaffiliated companies. Notice: "Limits" isn't the word "stops". And "unaffiliated" means they can still share with companies they themselves are affiliated with. These companies are now able to merge with countless other companies, who then become their affiliates. Those affiliates are allowed to share your information with their affiliates who may not even have anything to do with your bank, financial service or insurance company. In my case, a baby furniture store.

How about this: If I do want to share my information I'll check a box telling you to go and share it. Otherwise, assume I don't want you to. Opting-in. Actually, Vermont does it and most companies leave Vermonters alone. Nearly 75 percent of North Dakota voters supporting opting-in a June 2002 referendum.

Opting-in in every state would keep the onus off people like you and me to control our own information. For example, this insert I'm still dealing with. The language in it is even more arduous than the steps it takes to get rid of it.

An excerpt: "If you fill in box 1 on the Privacy Choices Form, we will not make these disclosures except as follows. First, we may disclose information about you as described above in "Personal Information We Collect and May Disclose" to third parties that perform marketing services on our behalf or to other financial institutions with whom we have joint marketing agreements. Second, we may disclose personal information about you to third parties as permitted by law, such as disclosures necessary to process and service your [credit card] account."

I'll bet you didn't read that whole thing. I get the dial tone sound in my head around, "If you fill in box 1…" Do you feel like I bombarded you with annoying drudgery you didn't even ask for? That's how I feel about the catalogues. Believe it or not, Title V also requires that these privacy notices arrive in plain language. Interesting. I don't see any information telling me exactly who these third parties are. I don't see anything telling me what my 'information' really includes. And doesn't 'disclose' or 'share' my information mean 'sell' my information to third parties? Saying that would be plain language.

This stupid insert unfolds to 8 pages. But if I don't read it and fully fill in the right boxes (they underline fully fill in and have four separate box options) my credit card company could give information to other companies about what I buy. Then those companies could share that information. And we know what that means. More catalogues. No thank you.

So I'll do it. It's as invasive as the companies that leave flyers on my windshield. It's as frustrating as the commercials before the previews before a movie. We are treated more and more like consumer sponges, giving us no choice but to handle the flyer or watch the movie ads (without even a ticket price reduction!). For that matter, if my information is being shared, if I am the commodity, where's my … share?

I'm curious: Can't people register to vote this way? How about a notice in the mail saying, "You will be registered to vote unless you fully fill in the boxes with your information, cut it, pop a stamp on and mail it back to us." But without the catalogue money machine benefiting, that system's a no-go.

When you see: "Privacy Notice", notice. It's tucked in there on the long-scrolling document you have to click on to 'agree' to a website. It's in small type on the bottom of that form you're signing on a clipboard. It's lurking in the weirdly cheerful newsletter in your utility bill. If you see the words "Your information" and "Third party," opt-out or you can bet someone will be having a party with your information.

 

Heather Maidat writes and opts-in in Los Angeles.