Congress and Credit Cards Mean the Death of Privacy

21 Mag Congress and Credit Cards Mean the Death of Privacy

Time Magazine, By Douglas McIntyre, May 20, 2009

The development and growth of technology has had some unexpected and unpleasant side effects. One is the death of privacy. People with cell phones snap pictures and take videos of strangers. Webcams make online dating harder. Those seeking romance find it much more difficult to lie about their ages. The most recent innovation to make the details of everyone’s life available to everyone else is a GPS tracking phone. Someone late for a meeting can no longer say he is stuck in traffic. His phone shows he is in the coffee shop just around the corner. A company called Glympse offers this tracking product for a number of smartphones. (See a TIME package on travel gadgets.) The civility of the pre-technology days is gone. We are left with a world in which people’s lives are open to the kind of scrutiny that used to be reserved for celebrities. The concept of personal boundaries has been destroyed. Many companies track the content of their workers’ emails and whether they spend hours each day online interacting with their friends on Facebook. The press recently reported that Google (GOOG) has created software that can predict whether its employees will quit. The next step will be that the search company will forecast which people it will fire. That should save its human resources staff a great deal of time and anguish. Google may even find that HR is not necessary. Software can perform all of the functions that a human can. (Read: “How Not to Be Hated on Facebook: 10 More Rules.”) Technology that is already fairly old allows credit card companies to keep tabs on what customers are doing with their money, which includes where they shop, what they spend, and whether they pay their bills for other credit cards, their car payments, and mortgages. The Senate recently passed a “Credit Card Holders Bill of Rights” that will make it more difficult for lenders to take personal financial information and decrease people’s credit lines or raise their interest rates. The Bill of Rights will make most of the payment tracking software useless. The banks that bought it will have to write it off. They also have to face the prospect that people who are poor credit risks can run up tremendous sums on their cards, expose the lender to greater risk, and not have to pay a tenth of a percent in extra interest because they are increasingly likely to default. Congress uses perverse mathematics that no one else has to make certain that banks will write down more money on credit card losses. This gives the government the opportunity to lend the banks more out of the TARP fund. Technology has become so sophisticated that it is in front of the rules that should govern it, presenting problems similar to the ones that cloning does. Some people want to clone themselves to create a faux immortality. In the U.S. that is forbidden. In Sweden, it probably is not. Technology crosses borders, but the same is not necessarily true for the regulations that govern it. The government is going to be asked to do much more than set up guidelines for what credit agencies can share about people’s spending and payment habits. It is not clear that it is legal or moral to fire someone because the odds are high that the person might quit. But, if a company can determine accurately that there is a 99% chance that someone will leave, why shouldn’t it be able to fire the person and begin the process of finding a replacement? There is no reason that the employer should be burdened by waiting. The existence of a GPS system that keeps track of people’s locations gets into the tricky moral issue of lying. Pre-GPS, people would tell lies about why they were late all of the time. There may not have been much harm in it, especially since it was hard to verify whether someone’s claim was true. (See a story on GPS.) Technology is making it no longer possible for people to lie so easily. It is making usury okay unless the Congress says otherwise. Technology is interfering with job security in ways we could never have imagined. In the meantime, the moral codes for technology use are increasingly out of date.