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Digital privacy

05/01/07 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(HOST) Do we have any privacy left? Commentator Allen Gilbert looks at how data mining is turning our personal identities into a profitable enterprise.

(GILBERT) We're being sold out.

Every scrap of information about us is being mined for personal data. The data are collected, combined with other data into powerful databases, and then manipulated to provide profiles of us that are valuable to merchants, marketers, and even the government.

I think that the 21st century may well be defined by the digitalization of our identities. Any privacy that we now have the sense of being left alone may in the future be a sliver so thin that it's virtually meaningless.

The irony is that we live in a country that greatly values privacy. Yet in this digital age, America has some of the weakest laws protecting privacy. In many countries, data collected about us could not be shared, rented, or sold to anyone else without our express permission. Not in the United States. Data about each one of us are kept in any of a number of data warehouses, ready to be shipped to anyone who wants it for a price. Knowing what groceries you're buying is valuable information. So are credit card purchases that show where you've traveled in the last twelve months.

Legislators this year have become aware of a new sort of data-mining. It involves medical prescriptions, and it's so sophisticated and so massive that it makes your jaw drop.

The pharmaceutical companies get prescription records from benefit managers and insurance companies. Each prescription has a doctor code on it, a medical identification number that the companies buy from the American Medical Association. This allows the companies to examine prescribing patterns of individual doctors, and to target specific doctors with specific marketing messages. The main goal is to convince doctors to prescribe their companies' drugs often brand-name drugs that are more expensive than generic drugs.

The pharmaceutical companies spend about seventy billion dollars a year marketing their products to doctors much more than they spend marketing drugs to consumers - despite what we might think based on the prevalence of drug ads on TV.

There is no estimate of how much this data-mining and doctor-marketing is adding to health care costs. Pharmaceutical company lobbyists argue that if marketing is made more efficient through extensive use of data, it takes costs out of the system. The lobbyists also argue that the data are widely used by health researchers and that if commercial companies are prohibited from collecting the data, the data will no longer be gathered and health care research will suffer.

As consumers and human beings, we need to take control of our digital identities. We need the safeguards that most other countries have that what's called the contemplated chain of custody of information about us is controlled by us. Our lives or in the case of doctors, their prescribing practices - shouldn't be for sale.

An effective phrase to remind parents about the need to look after their children was developed some years back: Do you know where your children are? We need a similar phrase now to protect our identities. Do you know where your personal information is?

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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