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They're watching you

Bugged Levis, unauthorized sex tapes, leaked medical records — is nothing sacred anymore?
By SARA DONNELLY  |  August 30, 2006

These are not times for the shy. Post 9-11, it’s perfectly legal for large portions of our daily lives to be covertly monitored by the government, often without a court order. And then there’s the Internet and its virtual network of instantaneous humiliation. Or the identity thieves who experts say pick through trash for useful tidbits with which to ruin your credit.

Here in Maine, concerns about the federal government’s warrantless wiretapping program have hit especially close to home. The Maine Civil Liberties Union is representing 22 residents who want the state’s Public Utilities Commission to investigate whether Verizon secretly released Maine phone records to the government’s National Security Agency. Last Monday, August 21, the US Department of Justice sued the Maine PUC and Verizon to stop any investigation into the alleged leaks; the feds have filed similar suits in New Jersey and Missouri to quash state efforts to stop covert surveillance. Verizon, for its part, has released unsigned statements to the Maine PUC denying illegal sharing of records but has not sworn under oath that these denials are true.

Evan Hendricks, editor of the Washington, DC, newsletter Privacy Times, has studied privacy in the US since 1977. He says these days are “the best of times and the worst of times” — the worst because new technology allows information to be collected easier, the best because, he says, “in 1977, this was all a theoretical issue. It was all like, ‘Well, if they do this then this can happen.’ Now all these things have happened, there’s been misuse of information, there’s been security breaches, so you have a growing consciousness and we’re at a stage where no politician can get up and say ‘I favor invasion of privacy as good policy.’”

No politician except the president, that is.

Since George W. Bush entered the Oval Office, consumer privacy, patient privacy, and personal privacy have been significantly hampered thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act and other rule changes. So, in honor of keeping your business your business, here’s a brief list of common invasions of privacy and what, if anything, you can do to stop them.

1. Make sure what you read isn’t held against you
HOW CAN THEY SCREW ME? In October 2001, just after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act, which among other increases in government surveillance abilities allows federal investigators easier access to library records. Under a gag order attached to the bill, libraries are not allowed to reveal that they have been asked for the information, let alone that they have given it.

WHAT CAN I DO? Go to libraries that erase patron check-out records every 24 hours, like the Baxter Memorial Library in Gorham. The Portland Public Library system erases a book’s check-out record as soon as you return it and does not attach visitor names to Internet search records at their communal computers.

2. Keep your illnesses to yourself
HOW CAN THEY SCREW ME? In 2002, the federal Department of Health and Human Services changed privacy rules to make it easier for hundreds of thousands of medical entities to share your medical records between them. This includes health practitioners, insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and medical marketing companies. While most records are shared between practitioners and insurance companies for processing payments or for the benefit of the patient’s health, in June the Washington Post reported that the federal government has received nearly 19,500 complaints about alleged medical privacy violations, including reports that personal medical records were not protected. The Bush administration has prosecuted only two complaints, but has not imposed any fines.

WHAT CAN I DO? Dr. Deborah Peel, founder of the Texas-based advocacy group Patient Privacy Rights and a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit to reverse the slackening of medical privacy, says “there’s a great deal of threat to privacy” in healthcare today — anonymous patient records can be sold to pharmaceutical companies for marketing purposes, practitioners are not required to notify patients of privacy breaches involving their records, and patients can’t sue medical companies in federal court if their privacy has been violated. But there is light at the end of the tunnel — you can try to negotiate additional protection with your doctor. Peel recommends forgetting about the “privacy notice” your doctor hands you and instead using her group’s “Statement of My Right to Medical Privacy” which can be downloaded at If both you and your doctor sign your special agreement, says Paul Feldman, deputy director of the Health Privacy Project in Washington, DC, your doctor is bound by it, at least in state court. If you’re being tested for HIV or another potentially reputation-damaging condition, Feldman says you can patronize an anonymous testing clinic or negotiate special secrecy for just that part of your record — but get it in writing.

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Privacy Web sites

CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering): A national group founded in 1999 by Katherine Albrecht to fight supermarket marketing strategies that invade consumer privacy.

Health Privacy Project: Founded in 1997 by a medical research professor at Columbia University, HPP helps healthcare stakeholders support patient privacy with research, policy analysis, Congressional testimony, and media campaigns.

Privacy Activism: A nonprofit, grassroots group founded in 2002 to inform the general public about threats to privacy.

Privacy Coalition: A nonpartisan group of consumer, civil liberties, educational, family, library, labor, and technology organizations formed in 2001 to support privacy in American life. Members include the National Rifle Association, the American Library Association, and the Consumer Federation of America.

Privacy Foundation: Based at the University of Denver, in Colorado, the foundation presents research on international and domestic privacy issues on its Web site and hosts public seminars on privacy.

Privacy Journal: Founded in 1974 by Robert Ellis Smith, the journal touts itself as the “longest-running, most engaging publication on personal privacy.” Privacy Journal is published in Providence, Rhode Island, and is subscription based.

Patient Privacy Rights Foundation: Founded by psychiatrist Deborah Peel, the Texas-based foundation works to preserve medical privacy through advocacy, research, and legal action.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse: Based in San Diego, California, the nonprofit Clearinghouse was founded in 1992. It provides research on threats to consumer privacy, advocates at the local and federal level for consumers, and fields consumer complaints.

Spychips.Com: A Web site founded by RFID and consumer privacy experts Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre, focuses on research on RFID (radio frequency identification technology) chips and advocacy against them. The Web site includes photos of various types of RFID chips and a list of product-makers and companies who may use them.

World Privacy Forum: A nonprofit, non-partisan group based in Encinitas, California, dedicated to researching technology’s effect on privacy. WPF was founded by privacy expert and author Pam Dixon in 2002.  

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