MOST Americans have no idea of the scope of personal, sensitive information about all of us now being stored in massive computer memories of business corporations, banks, government agencies, and even schools and religious organizations. The data are never destroyed. It is an unrecognized consequence of the explosion in computer and telecommunications technology. You would be surprised at how easy it is for others to obtain information people assume is confidential. This personal information is not only used as a tool for those who make organizational decisions, but it is marketable for a variety of commercial and political purposes, and even as an instrument of surveillance and possible abuse.
Flourishing investigative firms offer services to a broad array of clients, especially to business corporations. When information is not readily available through legitimate channels, investigators routinely resort to surreptitious and even illegal activity.
Much information is collected and maintained just to respond to government requirements, which are enormous. On average, there are 15 federal agency files on every person in the United States. A total information base is thus created which is a valuable resource to third parties.
When it comes to banks, your banking transactions, particularly the checks you issue and the credit card charges, are a mirror of your life style, personal interests, and political beliefs.
The average person has little knowledge about the practices of the insurance industry, and therefore does not know about his personal vulnerability when seeking insurance coverage. It is very extensive. The authorization form you sign when you apply for an insurance policy has been characterized as a ``search warrant without due process.'' To check the accuracy of information provided by the individual, insurance companies use outside investigators and centralized industry data banks.
When it comes to list compilers, without our knowledge we are profiled and placed on many specialized lists, whether we like it or not. Many private and government entities compile these lists for a wide variety of reasons. Thus, it is easy to get on lists but difficult to get off.
You could be classified a foreign policy hawk, affluent ethnic professional, black activist, person who frequents the dice tables, or any other classification a client might desire. You don't know what lists you are on. In recent years classification lists have been extensively used in the political process, with remarkable success.
It is widely believed the balance of power in American society is becoming more and more dangerously weighted in favor of large institutions - government and business alike. A chief reason is that they are the ones with the personal information about people, and the people don't know it.
In the political arena, computerized capabilities have given pressure groups the power to influence candidate selection and key legislative issues as never before.
To determine the vulnerability of sensitive personal information in the files of corporations about their employees, we at the University of Illinois conducted a research survey of the Fortune 500 companies. Information policies of large, successful corporations are especially significant because often they set the standards for a variety of other organizations and activities.
What we found was that too many of the nation's largest industrial corporations do not have adequate policies to protect confidential data, and the employees do not know about it. For example:
Four out of 5 companies (80 percent) disclose personal information to credit grantors and 3 out of 5 (58 percent) give information to landlords. One-fourth (28 percent) give it to charitable organizations. Yet, most companies (57 percent) do not tell the individual about it.
For inquiries from government agencies, 2 out of 5 (38 percent) companies do not have a policy concerning which personal records are disclosed. When no policy exists, the person in charge - even a computer technician or file clerk - decides for himself what personal information is turned over to the government, whether the agency is entitled to it or not.
Over half the companies do not tell their employees the types of records they maintain (57 percent), or how they are used (59 percent). These companies, in effect, are maintaining secret records, which is an anathema to a democratic society.
Obviously, too many leading corporate institutions are not practicing fair information policies toward their own personnel. And apparently many of them do not even know it because almost half (45 percent) of the corporations do not conduct periodic evaluations of how they handle confidential information in their files.
Until we have national legislation providing for fair information practices by all institutions, no American's personal, sensitive information is secure.