Privacy and Connections

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THE snowy weather here in New England recently has been just perfect for telephone shopping, with its mix of sophisticated logistics and ``down home'' operators standing by: High tech and high touch. But it can be a little unnerving to think how much these merchants know about us after a few years.

Consider the case of The Lost Woman Whom L.L. Bean Helped Find: Early one Sunday morning in November 1992, police in Staten Island, New York, found a disoriented older woman wandering around with her small dog. They were unable to determine where she lived, and she was unable to tell them. Her name was on the dog's collar, but the police could find no address for her. When they noticed her L. L. Bean field watch, though, they called to see whether Bean could help them get her home.

The customer-service representative they reached at that hour at Bean's, up in Freeport, Maine (open 24 hours a day, seven days a week), was a former police dispatcher. Through a few carefully put questions, she confirmed that the officers' plea for help was genuine. And when, in a lucid moment, the lost woman remembered living in Bethesda, Md., Bean's computer was checked for her name in Bethesda ZIP codes; up came her address. A further check of her gift recipients identified family members, with whom she was soon reunited.

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This is the upside of today's computer web. The spokeswoman confirming the story pointed out how unusual it was and stressed that Bean's doesn't share data with just anyone.

The downside of the data network age has also been apparent in recent weeks. Tens of thousands of passwords for Internet, one of the main drags through cyberspace, were reported stolen earlier this month, with no identifiable motive, and with, as yet, no actual theft of data.

Perhaps more troubling, because it is an official action, is the Clinton administration's recent decision to require installation of ``clipper chip'' technology in all telephone and cable networks to ensure law enforcement agencies' ability to wiretap them. This decision, hugely unpopular already, in effect would require anyone building a house to give Uncle Sam a key.

This is an odd one for Clinton: Democrats want to be tough on crime, but this looks to be more a calculated offense to civil libertarians than red meat for the law-and-order crowd.

We are torn over privacy issues, both governmental and commercial. Those claiming a right to make phone calls without being identified by Caller ID, for instance, seem to have seized the high ground from those who want callers identified.

We may have qualms about the electronic trail we leave at an automatic teller but don't want to give up the convenience of cash at the punch of a few buttons.

We want to hang up on telemarketers who call us at dinner time, but our own employers may consider the telephone research they do critical to the business.

Balance is the issue here; we need doors that open, but also lock.

If your mother were lost, you'd want her to be found by cops as resourceful and importunate as the ones on Staten Island. And if it were your address in the database, you'd want its keeper to be as vigilant as the former police dispatcher at Bean's.

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