AN increasing number of Americans worry about their privacy. A 1988 national survey by Cambridge Reports found that nearly two-thirds of 1,517 respondents felt their privacy is ``threatened'' by computer-stored records, double the proportion of five years ago, when the trend was first tracked in the annual survey. This worry is well-founded. Public policies for electronic data-base privacy are incoherent and vague. A citizen's computer file begins while one is still in the womb and never stops: it may include medical-test results, school grades, arrest record, size of mortgage, merchandise purchased, library books checked out, and even organizations and causes supported.
With improvements in data networks, these separate computer files could in the future be brought together. Already through data merging, a startlingly full picture of an individual's life can be constructed. While privacy fears are not new, they are gaining new relevance because of the mushrooming power of computers and their data-base links.
Many institutions use these technologies to obtain a timely and inexpensive picture of clientele. The IRS has sought electronic links to computers in 80 counties to get instant access to local records, such as voter registration. The military's Selective Service once bought a computerized list of the names and birth dates of youngsters who had filled out cards at an ice cream parlor chain to get a free sundae on their birthday, so that the service could identify 18-year-olds who had not registered for the draft. Some companies automatically record the name and phone number of callers to their 800-number service lines without giving them a choice of whether they want to have the information logged for future marketing or customer-service purposes.
Today we enjoy partial protection from snooping because our files are spread around at separate institutions - and because of organizational incompetence. But more and more, electronic networks are being built to bring diverse data bases together. Many of these linkages are helping to reach goals of social value or economic efficiency, such as fighting Medicaid fraud; yet in the process, thousands of people who are not suspected of wrongdoing will have their medical files perused.
No laws are being broken, though many people might feel their privacy is violated. Beyond individual consequences loom societal ones. A citizen's previous support of an unpopular cause could be recorded in a massive data base ready for matching whenever a governmental agency or employer had a ``need to know.'' Had such technology been available during the McCarthy era, it would have taken only moments for the names of all high school teachers to be matched up against all signers of a 10-year-old petition demanding better relations with the Soviet Union. In the future, knowledge of how organizations can gain such quick access to records might dampen political dissent.
Conversely, technology can be used to protect privacy. Massive efforts has been devoted to guarding computer files against unauthorized access, including sophisticated identity-verification systems, electronic audit trails, and file-encryption techniques. Transmission systems will soon be able to encode individuals' personal and financial communications.
Technology can help in more prosaic ways as well. New telephone services are now becoming available, such as calling party identification, which can provide people being called with the caller's telephone number. In this way, they could know who is trying to reach them before deciding whether they want their privacy imposed upon - just like residents look through their window or an entry viewer to see who is at the door.
But technology, for all its privacy-enhancing potential, is powerless to control human decisions. Today who can say whether guarantees of confidentiality about an individual's interests or personal history made by the creators of a data base would be honored by those who later gain possession of it? Thoughtful, enforceable policies can effectively address those kinds of privacy invasion in a balanced and reasonable way. The fault, as well as the remedy, lies not in our machines but in ourselves.