In his new book, No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society, Robert O’Harrow, an investigative reporter at The Washington Post, highlights an area that he believes has been underreported: the business of personal information.
“Americans are deeply ambivalent, yet panic attacks ensue when ‘Big Brother’ appears to develop,” O’Harrow said at the Library of Congress on Monday as he discussed the acceleration in companies collecting personal information.
O’Harrow’s book, which came out in January, has drawn readers’ attention to a number of companies that specialize in compiling records about Americans, including two, Axiom and ChoicePoint, that have grown rapidly in the past decade.
O’Harrow said that Axiom has 1 million times more information now than it had when it started just over 10 years ago. ChoicePoint has also grown at an astounding rate — it started in 1997 and now claims to have more than 20 billion records, ranging from an individuals’ spending patterns to their sexual preferences.
O’Harrow conceded that such information proliferation enhances our quality of life, even as it invades our privacy. For example, he asks, where would we be without our credit cards and access to ATMs across the globe? And where would we be without the ability to make phone calls from anywhere at any time? The author said this “allows companies to watch us.”
Such luxuries quickly become part of everyday life and before we know it we become dependant upon them to conduct our lives. O’Harrow said that Americans are easily lulled into handing over mundane information if it provides short-term gain, yet it is the bigger picture that the amalgamation of this information allows that, he said, should cause “urgent civic concern.”
Such information allows companies to pinpoint the shopping trends of an individual and consequently produce much more effective advertisement schemes. The philosophy being that the better a company knows you, the easier it will be for it to make you part with your money. That may initially appear harmless and, in fact, of benefit to the consumer, yet in the wake of Sept. 11 the context of this debate has changed.
After Sept. 11, Axiom, ChoicePoint and other companies peddling similar wares opened their books to the U.S. government. What was born out of a patriotic duty has allowed this administration to sidestep a fundamental restriction upon the possibilities of government invasiveness. The government is forbidden from accumulating the oceans of data that such companies compile. However, by outsourcing, it is able to avoid this constitutional restraint.
O’Harrow asks the critical question, “Why should we hand over this new form of power?”
O'Harrow is undeniably passionate about this cause and intends to investigate the issues further. Yet the response of the audience at the Library of Congress was more one of resignation than revolt. Many of those present exuded an attitude of inevitable submission to the power of the corporation, an attitude O’Harrow no doubt intends to change.