Intrusion by tape recorder

Once again the issue of privacy is emerging as a concern on the American landscape. Surveys report that Americans are increasingly concerned about threats to their privacy. Now it is reported that the director of the US Information Agency has secretly tape recorded conversations with other government officials.

By contrast with communism or the 1984 of George Orwell, democracy as practiced in the United States has provided its citizens with considerable privacy which they zealously defend. In principle, government may obtain from citizens only such information as it really needs to know, such as income for tax purposes. Other information - and especially what they think or say in presumed confidence - should reside with each citizen.

Privacy-probing practices are not limited to government, with the increasing collection of data about individuals by businesses, in part in exchange for credit.

Over the past three decades protecting privacy has become more difficult. The technological revolution has made it dramatically easier to gather information. Sophisticated electronic gear is capable of monitoring, almost without detection , presumably private conversations on or off the telephone. Data from credit cards, bank transactions, and employment can be transmitted between computers to provide extensive personal profiles of the private lives of individual Americans.

The temptation is to gather and share information because it is easy to do - whether or not the information is needed. The issue involves but is not limited to the law: Some privacy questions are clearly addressed by laws; some are not. In some cases laws should be examined and perhaps modernized to take account of privacy violations that employ modern electronic means.

Beside the law is the question of ethics. Increasing numbers of people are tape-recording telephone conversations nowadays. It is easy and inexpensive: Ear pieces can be purchased cheaply at electronic stores to connect a telephone to a tape recorder. Unless the person on the other end of the conversation has sophisticated machinery, he never knows his words are being taped. In many states this can be done legally. But it is unethical: Permission always should be asked before conversations are tape-recorded. To do otherwise is to violate the privacy of the conversation. Such violations are unethical and have no place in a democracy.

A Harris poll released last month illustrated the increasing public concern: It found 48 percent of Americans ''very concerned'' about threats to their personal privacy, compared with 31 percent five years earlier.

They have reason for concern. For instance, reports circulate in Washington that the government may move to share among several departments the data that Americans have given - they had thought with guarantees of secrecy - in census reports. No decision has been reached, but it has aroused congressional critics.

Government and business must have the information they need. But individuals must have the privacy which, in part, distinguishes democracy from totalitarianism.

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