Montana Voices: Private sector leads assault on privacy

Remember the good old days when we worried that the government was going to invade our privacy? Remember many years ago your Social Security card said right on it, “Not to be used for purposes of identification?”

Jim Elliott

We were worried about an attack from the wrong quarter—at least for a while—because the real assault on privacy came from the private sector.

First, I remember being refused medical treatment if I didn’t give the medical folks my “not to be used for purposes of identification” Social Security number. Just in case they would like to make their deadbeat debt collection process a little smoother, I suppose.

Then came the grocery chains with their “Club Cards.” That gave them the ability to collect the information they needed about your purchases to tailor a sales pitch directly to your tastes, personalized, on your receipt.

As an incentive to get and use a Club Card, they offered substantial “discounts” to club members. Cucumbers that sold to the general riff-raff were priced at, say, $3.50, but for exclusive club members, 50 cents. Out of sheer cussedness I actually ponied up the $3.50 rather than cave in to the invasion of my privacy.

Once, as I was preparing to pay four bucks for a bunch of parsley, the checker said, “I’ll just give you my card number.” She did, and I got the parsley maybe for a quarter. The checker said, “See how much money you saved?” Looking a gift horse straight in the mouth, I said, “Basically that was just a discount on a marked-up item.”

In my book the price of cheap and convenient does not include any of my personal information.

Then came the internet. Maybe enough said, but I recently bought a new computer, and during the set-up process was asked, “Would you like to share your personal information with the manufacturer so the we can maximize your computer experience?”

No, I would not. It goes on and on, of course, and then after 9/11 the government did get involved in it in spades with a huge grab of individual cell phone data and texts.

And how about the national ID, the federal government’s requirement that state drivers’ licenses contain information needed for national security purposes? A double down on states’ rights and individual rights.

Finally, at least for this article, the recent action by Congress and the president helping out the data industry big time by overriding a Federal Communications Commission rule that prevented internet service providers from selling their customers’ information without getting the customers’ permission.

This means that your internet browsing history, financial records, medical history and even your location belong to anybody who wants to buy them. A big thanks to our elected officials on that one. This from an editorial by Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., in “The Hill.”

Montana is one of the very few states where the citizen has a constitutional right to privacy. It’s in our Bill of Rights, Article 2, Section 10: “The right of individual privacy is essential to the well-being of a free society and shall not be infringed without the showing of a compelling state interest.” I am hoping that allowing sales of personal information is not a “compelling state interest.”

In a 1999 case before the Montana Supreme Court, Armstrong v. State, one of my very few heroes and a stalwart defender of our right to privacy, Justice Jim Nelson, wrote in the court’s opinion; “Montana adheres to one of the most stringent protections of its citizens’ right to privacy in the United States, exceeding even that provided by the federal constitution.”

So, we Montanans are lucky in that regard in that we at least have something we can feel good about, but in the frenzy of what seems like universal data collection on everybody, it now might be just window dressing.

But rest assured, I am still not getting a grocery store Club Card.

Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek.