Corporations using IT to become the new Big Brother

Think Big Brother is the government keeping tabs on you? Think again. Companies have more data about you than you can imagine. And IT faces legal issues as it handles that data.

In America, the term "Big Brother" refers to the U.S. government. We have laws protecting us from "big brother" that restrict the government's use of our personal information. On the other hand, however, companies can collect as much information as they need about us and can do almost anything with it. But we never stop to consider that.

Which is the real Big Brother -- governments or corporations? I say it's both.

In the U.K. and most European countries, laws are written to restrict the storage, access and movement of data. They can't store or use personal information without consent and a valid business reason. They can't allow the data outside of the U.K. or the EU without assurances that the country where the data will be accessed or will reside complies with the same level of protection that the U.K. provides. For any company doing business in the U.K., these laws are very strict and almost always enforced.


John Brandt

In the U.S., you have to jump through just a few hoops to find out that every major bank, credit card company and healthcare company is violating U.S. laws by outsourcing processes overseas to countries that have no corporate laws, much less privacy laws protecting individuals' data. In fact, a list compiled by CNN shows that more than 200 companies choose to employ cheap overseas labor, instead of American workers. (View CNN features on outsourcing workers. A link to the list of companies is at the bottom of the page.)

Additionally, the Fair Credit Reporting Act and HIPAA both restrict remote storage and access to data, but neither has ever been enforced or used against any company, bank or credit card company. A search at FindLaw for HIPAA and privacy/Constitutional issues at the U.S. Circuit Courts, Appeals Courts and Supreme Court of the United States found 13 specific lawsuits, none of them related to the location or release of data overseas by someone identified as being from overseas and all of them having been dismissed or settled.

In America, we regularly give personal information to companies without even thinking about it. What could they possibly know about you? On Friday, somewhere in America, a man gets into his Chevrolet Monte Carlo and goes to the grocery store. He buys a 12-pack of Diet Coke and a 12-pack of Budweiser Beer, Tide detergent, Gillette razors, Old Spice deodorant and some M&M's candy. And uses his grocery store discount card while charging it to his Visa.

He uses his Nextel phone to call Domino's to deliver pizza while he's checking his e-mail on AOL, flips his DIRECTV to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) basketball summary, records a romantic comedy on HBO using TiVo and sets the other DIRECTV box to Nick-at-Night.

What do companies know? Almost everything they need:

  • There is a 20- to 30-something female in the house, as most Diet Coke drinkers are women in this age bracket.
  • The man is likely a 30- to 40-something NASCAR fan because every item on his shopping list is an Official NASCAR brand from drivers in their late 30s and early 40s.
  • His is probably from the southeastern U.S. because that is the region of the ACC.
  • It is a two-income family. He's recording her show while she's working, while at the same time the children are watching Nick-at-Night shows.

How can companies know all that and put it together? Simple. For the man to get his grocery store discount card, DIRECTV or TiVo, he signs a release allowing the companies to use his information or transfer it to business partners. DIRECTV and TiVo track what channels he watches, records and even when he replays something and how many times he replays the clip.

Data mining companies match this information with his DIRECTV or cell phone information, and instantly they've created a profile that gives them everything they want to know.

Credit card companies can build a nice trail of your whereabouts. Some cell phone companies can tell when your cell switches from one tower to another, and with GPS they can get close enough to tell that you are at your front door rather than in the street at the mail box.

It is even scarier when you consider that most of us in IT are involved at some level in determining data collection, storage and access of personal information for clients every day. IT is quickly becoming a place where business consulting, legal issues and ethical issues come up every day at the lowest levels. Any accountant in America is bound by a set of ethical rules and regulated by hundreds of laws and regulations. That's not the case in IT. You do what you are told or you find another job.

In IT, we can violate about 10 laws and not even know it. An accounting batch job that goes bad may require some data manipulation to make it run correctly. So, we write a program to fix the data by writing transactions that void the bad transactions and we are safe. Modify any file directly, change a status so that the records aren't visible or simply delete the records so that the job will run, and we've violated the law. It doesn't matter if it was done with the best intentions. The company gets what it needs regardless of the ethical and legal issues at play.

Where does all of this lead us? Simple. Big brother. In the U.S. we're afraid our government will know what library books we are reading, will use face recognition technology, and will use GPS to track our whereabouts. It doesn't need those. All it needs is an account with a data mining company.

Of course, I wouldn't know. I'm just a flunky programmer.

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About the author: John Brandt is a site expert on Search400.com and vice president of technical services at iStudio400.com. He welcomes your comments and feedback; send your e-mails to editor@search400.com.

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MORE COLUMNS BY JOHN BRANDT
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  • Playing by the rules -- or not
    You're a U.S. citizen. You'd like to think that U.S. companies would respect you and treat you fairly. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. Columnist John Brandt describes how American IT workers are getting the short end of the stick.
  • Singapore wormhole threatens to take more U.S. jobs
    You thought things were bad with H1-B and L-1 workers taking your jobs. Well, things could get even worse. Columnist John Brandt warns that Singapore and Chile Free Trade Agreements allow foreign workers to enter the U.S. and take away even more jobs.


This was first published in February 2004

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