Column: Protecting our privacy

Janet Stevens Published Jan 24, 2014 at 12:01AM

If Edward Snowden has done nothing else for the world, he has brought the issue of privacy — or lack of it — to the top of the discussion heap. The notion that this government, or any other, is collecting emails and telephone records willy-nilly is unsettling, at best.

It may be that complete electronic privacy is pretty much a thing of the past. Anyone who has Googled anything knows that — search for something once and you’ll be bombarded with advertisements for similar products for weeks afterward. Television tells us nearly weekly about a murder solved when hard-drive inspections turn up searches about arsenic or some such. And don’t forget the thousands of credit card numbers and the like taken from Target computers recently.

The situation isn’t completely hopeless, though what the experts suggest be done takes more dedication than I think many of us are willing to give to the job of keeping our private lives private.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse is among the organizations with a long list of such suggestions. Among them:

• Get and check your credit report each year, consider freezing access to that report and resist the temptation to take advantage of unsolicited credit card offers.

• Sign up for the national do-not-call registry, take advantage of the security features on your smartphone and make sure you’re current on home computer security. Think before you click on unsolicited emails.

• Log out of email accounts and social networking accounts before visiting other websites.

• Be very, very careful with your Social Security number, pay attention to those privacy notices sent by banks and others once a year and sign up to reduce the amount of junk mail you receive. Understand your medical privacy rights.

• Shred things you don’t want other people to see, including anything with a Social Security number, bank or credit card number or anything else that can identify you.

• Ditch the debit card. Use checks, cash or a credit card instead.

• Be careful with social networking. Crooks, bill collectors and others mine social networking sites routinely for personal information.

And so on. If you’re interested in the complete list, go to www.privacy rights.org.

There’s more to privacy than just the Internet, of course, and as we’ve grown accustomed to the notion that privacy is elusive, we’ve seen it assaulted in other areas, as well.

Consider the current trend in health care. If you sign up, as I did recently, for a supplemental Medicare plan, you may be asked, as I was, to voluntarily fill out a detailed survey about your own health.

In addition to the standard stuff about medications, blood pressure and the like, were questions about how often I felt “calm and peaceful” or “downhearted and depressed.” The very presence of the questionnaire left me downhearted and depressed, I have to say. What business is it of an insurance company if I wake up feeling sunny or snarky each morning?

What I know of the state’s new coordinated care organizations makes me feel the same way, unfortunately. I understand the goal — to save Oregon money by making and keeping Medicaid patients healthier. I just object to the injection of health care providers into every aspect of daily life, even if it’s not my own life.

A part of me, in other words, thinks that people have at least some right to live their lives poorly, at least from a health perspective, if they so choose.

I’m not sure what led to the current state of affairs. The 9/11 attacks helped, surely, as did the coming of the electronic age. The rapid rise in health care costs played a role. But so, too, did the willingness of ordinary folks to give up their privacy, either in the name of security or lower medical costs. I hope we don’t collectively some day regret it, though I suspect we will.

— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin.