Protecting privacy in an age of home computers, two-way TV
Los Angeles — It's getting to be a pretty familiar topic these days - what the electronic revolution means for the average American household. Many people know that, thanks to home computers, they'll soon be able to bank and shop at home, even work and learn there.
But as more Americans move into the home computer market - which has been estimated at $1.5 billion to $2 billion this year - one question being asked more frequently is not which brand to buy, but ''What happens to privacy?''
Although microprocessors and two-way cable television systems hold all sorts of electronic promise for individuals and institutions, experts note these rapidly developing technologies also have opened something of a Pandora's box - the increased dangers of electronic snooping and spying.
''You don't need computers to have these privacy problems,'' Dr. Walter Baer, director of advanced technology for Times Mirror Corporation, told a recent UCLA colloquium on ''Privacy and Democracy in 1984.''
''Still,'' he adds, ''computers can exacerbate the problems and also provide tools for greater personal protection.''
Over the last decade, a period during which public consciousness was jolted by the electronic and governmental abuses of Watergate, Americans have grown increasingly concerned about the abuse of privacy.
According to a 1970 Harris poll, one out of three Americans said they were concerned about invasion of their privacy, particularly the unnecessary collection of information about them by business and government. By 1979, that number had risen to three out of four. In addition, 75 percent said they would like to see the right to privacy added to the ''inalienable rights'' of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as outlined in the Declaration of Independence.
In addition to possibilities for interception of messages and misuse of personal records and information, areas of potential privacy abuse cited by experts include:
* The home. Two-way television hookups - which have many beneficial uses, such as classroom learning at home - raise the possibility of ''Big Brother'' surveillance so memorably portrayed by George Orwell in his book ''1984.''
In addition, the existing technological ability to control computers in the home from a central location - a system which could be used to trigger weather alerts or other disaster warnings in individual homes - raises questions of intrusiveness, again in the Orwell realm of messages or instructions broadcast to the individual without his consent.
* The workplace. The existing capacity for constant electronic monitoring of people at work involves issues of an individual's right to some sort of privacy on the job, notes Alan Westin, a professor at Columbia University and one of the country's leading experts on privacy.
Also, he notes, an employer's ability to build detailed computer health profiles of his employees - based on such factors as exposures to toxic substances and personal habits - could provide information for use in long-term health care planning. But, warns Mr. Westin, such electronic profiles could backfire if such records were obtained by another prospective employer and used as grounds for denying an individual a job.
* In public. Already, many shopping center parking lots and apartment buildings are equipped with camera surveillance devices aimed at protecting individuals. However, says Westin, even this type of surveillance raises broader concerns.
''I think society may rush to embrace surveillance technology with great enthusiasm,'' he says. ''The middle class may see it as the only way to preserve order in the streets. . . . It's being done for protection purposes, but it raises questions of what that information, those pictures, will be used for and by whom.''
Even as it poses new privacy problems, however, the electronic revolution also holds solutions. Although advertisers can now record a message and have a computer deliver to a number of households over the telephone - the electronic equivalent of junk mail - Dr. Baer notes that the Bell system has developed a ''do not disturb'' phone service that allows an individual to screen his calls and choose whether to answer them.
In addition, he says, digital technology has made it possible to encode electronic messages so that they cannot be easily intercepted or interpreted - much like wartime communications were coded.
Already, approximately one dozen states have set up special commissions to determine what sort of legislation is necessary to protect privacy in the face of the electronic revolution, with Michigan, Massachusetts, and Minnesota leading the way in privacy legislation, says Professor Westin.
''But the federal level is dead as a doornail,'' he complains. No one in the public or private sector ''is taking an overall look at protection of privacy in an age of rapidly changing technological innovation, says Westin.