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by Brick Walters, 11/05/99

DC: The rise of the Internet and computerized record keeping has privacy experts on alert for possible invasion of the sacred space in individual lives. And yet ... there is still an overabundance of private information available in public places.
A small but dedicated group is trying to use the Freedom From Information Act to cut down on the din. Brick Walters reports.

(sfx: restaurant)

Brick: At Gabby's, a popular luncheon spot, the daily crowd is just beginning to thin out when one voice rises above the steady drone of upscale patrons picking through the remains of their Chef's salads.

Harriet: ... And then the doctor said ... because of the infection there'll be a certain amount of discharge, so you'll have to change the dressing several times a day. And I said "SEVERAL TIMES A DAY?" And I wanted to know would it be pus, or are there other body fluids mixed in there, or what?

(sfx: crowd sound out)

And do you know ...that doctor got as quiet as ... as this restaurant!

Brick: Privacy experts agree there's a growing problem with individual privacy that is not purposely invaded or taken, but given away.
Person's Anonymous is a social and support group for the low and no profiled. It's administrator gave his name as "Sly Creeper."

Sly: The real privacy problem today ... is people who reveal more about themselves than anyone wants to know. People talk about their private lives in public ... on the bus, at the movies, at the theater, the fast food place, you name it. Anywhere people gather, someone is talking out loud about themselves in a way that is really and truly and deeply ... annoying.

Brick: WHY is it annoying? Can't people just ignore it?

Sly: No. As a species, we are incapable of ignoring each other's laundry. Especially if it's dirty.

Brick: (anncr) Which has led some states and cities to create local ordinances that expand upon the Federal Freedom from Information Act. Terry Tassler is a data privacy lawer.

Terry: The Freedom From Information Act is quite broad ... very general ... it says you "shall not spread unsolicited personal information that is unrelated to the public good."

Brick: What does THAT mean?

Terry: For instance ... if you went out on the street corner and shouted out your social security number ... that would violate the Freedom From Information Act, because most people don't give two hoots about your social security number.

Brick: Some criminals might like it.

Terry: Right. But the general populace ... they couldn't care less.

Brick: Would I be jailed for that?

Terry: No. In reality, there wouldn't even be a police call on it. Because nobody would care. It's just you being dumb.

Brick: So ... what's the problem?

Terry: Now some states and communities have taken it a step further, passing more strict local ordinances that prohibit ... say ... the "unregulated widespread dissemination of intimate personal, medical or employment information."

Brick: And that's different?

Terry: Oh, very different.

Brick: How so?

Terry: Oh, let's say ... a governor announced that he "doesn't wear underwear."

Brick: (laughing) Oh yeah.

Terry: That's a violation. You could take him to court over that.

Brick: But again ... doesn't it get back to the same point ... if you don't want to know something, don't pay attention! It's that simple.

Terry: Simple? Let's do a little demonstration of how simple it is.
Don't listen to what I'm about to say, OK?

Brick: OK.

Terry: You're not listening now?

Brick: I am now, but I won't be.

Terry: This is what I wanted to tell you ...

Brick: (humming to himself)

Terry: Your attention is NOT under your control. It can be manipulated.

Brick: (appalled, stops humming) No it can't!

Terry: I thought you weren't going to pay attention.

Brick: I didn't know you were going to say something ridiculous!
But now ... I'm REALLY not listening. (pause) I'm not listening I'm not listening I'm not listening ....(etc)

Terry: OK, now that you're not listening I can say whatever I want and you won't remember it SEX because you're ...

Brick: What did you say? Did you say SEX?

Terry: Man, you're pathetic.

Brick: (anncr) People pushing for strengthened Freedom From Information laws say the most vulnerable Americans are those with short attention spans. Edna Millridge of the Association of Low Attention and Easily Distracted Persons says the distractible flit from focus to focus the way honeybees visit summer flowers, and as a result they often have unwanted information thrust upon them.

Edna: Because it's easy to get our attention a lot of marketers especially are taking advantage. And that's not fair. We are really so distracted ... we need less information, not more.

Brick: (int) But realistically, can the marketers even hold your attention long enough to subject you to very much unwanted information?

Edna: (pause) Did you say something?

Brick: Wherever a proposal is made to extend the Freedom From Information Act, speech advocates are waiting to fight any limitations.

Terry: It's the old saying, updated. "I may not give a rip about your vasectomy, but I will defend to the death your right to talk about it in a crowded elevator."

Brick: (int) Would you, really? Defend that to the death?

Terry: That's getting a little personal, isn't it?

Brick: In the end, it comes down to a personal choice. To know, or not to know, ... or to know that one shouldn't know what one wants to know ... and then to know how not to know. That, ultimately, is the question.
Out in the field, I'm Brick Walters.

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