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Over the past few decades, the advances of computer technology have undoubtedly increased the rate of information exchange. Communication across the globe is now done with ease, convenience, and speed. Accessing online bank accounts, instant messaging, online auctions, and communication via electronic email are just few examples of normal transactions that occur today. Although these advances have provided a tremendous positive impact on our society, it has also caused some controversial ethical issues, namely the privacy of personal information. Computers have been used as a tool to invade personal privacy for various purposes such as direct marketing, the sharing and selling of consumer information, and government surveillances. Furthermore, the advent of the Internet as an infrastructure of connected computers has been used to exchange non-public personal information to unknown parties. As a result, privacy concerns have risen as computer technology rapidly becomes pervasive. Because of the depth and many facets of the privacy of personal information, this research paper focuses on the privacy of consumer information.
II. Current State on the Usage of Consumer Information
Consumer information is used for a wide variety of applications. Typical usage of consumer information today include target selling/marketing, sharing databases, and the credit bureau's use of consumer information to gauge personal credit ratings. Businesses may obtain consumer information from various sources such as customer questionnaires, surveys, commercial transactions, web activity, application forms, and many more. Personal consumer information gathered from these examples are then used by businesses to customize marketing efforts, data mine consumer databases to recognize buying patterns, and evaluate credit risks of applicants. A few examples of the kinds of information collection and usage practices are:
An automobile dealership's web site offers help to consumers in rebuilding their credit ratings. To take advantage of this offer, consumers are urged to provide their name, address, social security number, and telephone number through the web site's online information form. Consumer information may then be sold or shared to other automobile dealerships to provide specific, targeted offers for the consumer.
A mortgage company operates an online pre-qualification service for home loans. The online application form requires that each potential borrower provide his or her name, social security number, home and business telephone numbers, e-mail address, previous address, type of loan sought, current and former employer's name and address, length of employment, income, sources of funds to be applied toward closing, and approximate total in savings.
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Some consumers are concerned about the "invisible" collection of personal data. These practices have consequently led to consumers feeling very uncomfortable of having others handle one's own personal confidential information without prior notice or awareness. As a result, a significant trust gap exists today between consumers and businesses – especially those businesses with a presence on the Internet. The task of narrowing this gap, and reversing consumer reluctance to having businesses handle consumer information, has become a business imperative. For instance, a 2002 survey by Harris Interactive  found that most consumers do not trust that companies will handle their personal information in what they consider a proper manner. In fact, the survey showed that 75% of respondents are concerned that companies will provide their information to other companies without permission. These attitudes translate to the following consumer behavior studies: A study conducted by Privacy and American Business reported that 83% of consumers say they will stop doing business entirely with a company if they discover
that a company is using its customers’ information in a way they consider improper.
IBM research revealed that 54% of U.S. consumers have decided not to purchase something from a company because they were not sure how their personal information would be used
Forrester Research has found that 52% of current Internet buyers would make more purchases with privacy protections in place.
Today, it is virtually impossible to avoid some form of consumer information gathering. Technology has become a significant part of society's daily lives which inevitably becomes the basic fabric by which data is gathered. Though current usage of consumer information may be malicious or beneficial, advantages exist for consumers if laws and regulations are properly implemented.
III. Laws and Regulations in the United States
In response to the privacy of consumer information, the United States government -- particularly the Federal Trade Commission -- has implemented several laws and regulations to curb rampant distributions. Constant changes in business, new ideas, and harmful intents are just a few aspects the government must attempt to regulate during the dynamic Internet era. In addition to keeping pace with these rapid changes, the government must also struggle with the proper balance between restriction and supporting the benefits of sharing consumer information. A sample of the laws limiting the collection and/or use of personal information include:
Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (a financial institution must provide its customers with a notice of its privacy policies and practices, and must not disclose nonpublic personal information about a consumer to nonaffiliated third parties unless the institution provides certain information to the consumer and the consumer has not elected to opt out of the disclosure) A new Telemarketing Sales Rule and Do-Not-Call Registry (allows consumers already experiencing telemarketing efforts to be placed in a registry to prevent future solicitations; also places strict limitations on fax marketing)
Section 5 of the FTC Act (prohibiting unfair and deceptive practices)
New state and federal laws regulating data protection More recently, on December 4, 2003, President George Bush signed a bill that makes it easier for consumers to get credit while also protecting against identity theft. Named The Fair Credit Reporting Act, it sets a national credit reporting standard to make it easier for people to get credit cards, loans, and mortgages. The bill requires businesses to black out Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, and debit card numbers on receipts – which many businesses already do. Under the bill, consumers are able to get one free copy of their credit report every year; victims of identity theft can obtain two. Advocates of loose government regulation complain the new bill supersedes tougher state privacy laws that prevent businesses from sharing their customers' information with other companies. Furthermore, the bill empowers the national government by preventing states from setting their own rules on how businesses use, share and report data on consumers.
The underlying principles of U.S. laws and regulations on the privacy of consumer information comes from two contrasting views: free-market and consumer-protection. The free-market view bases its arguments on the first amendment (freedom of speech), strong reliance on contracts, and the basic essence of human honesty in transactions.
Additionally, free-market advocates argue that restricting sharing/selling consumer information limits a capitalistic government. U.S. domestic and international laws have been historically created and structured to nurture and encourage commercial activity. Free-market supporters believe that the consumer has the responsibility to read and understand policies and contracts. Avoiding legislation promotes choice and opportunity for both consumers and businesses. In sharp contrast, the consumer-protective views consider the nature of dishonesty in human nature. This viewpoint believes that government must be more strict and involved with businesses sharing and selling consumer information. Advocates of this viewpoint argue that their personal information is virtually everywhere, with limited, if any, control of their own information. Though laws and regulations may indeed exist, consumer-protective views feel a sense of insecurity and do not believe that businesses abide by policies and contracts.
IV. Global Perspectives
Like the United States government, privacy regulations in Europe are strict and comprehensive. The European Union (EU), consisting of 15 member nations, defines general principles on the privacy of consumer information. These principles then serves as guidelines for the member nations to implement their own laws. Although the principles are considered to be stricter than U.S. laws on collection of personal information, some critics believe that the principles align well with the private sector but does not provide enough protection against government agencies. The following are a few principles related to the privacy of consumer information :
Personal data may be collected only for specified, explicit purposes and must not be processed for incompatible purposes.
People must be notified of the collection and use of data about them. They must have access to the data stored about them and a way to correct incorrect data.
Processing of data is permitted only if the person consented unambiguously, or several other reasons Data must be accurate and up to date. Data must not be kept longer than necessary.
Unlike the United States government and the European Union, the Philippines (my country of origin) has very few laws and regulations on the privacy of consumer information. Additionally, the Filipino government have not kept pace with the rapid changes in technology. Aside from a few privacy laws, there has been no Philippine jurisprudence which deals with the extent of the right to privacy/confidentiality in relation to the disclosure of personal information. In any case, in the absence of specific jurisprudence, it is usual for Philippine courts to adopt doctrines established by U.S. jurisprudence. Because of the strong American influence, most Filipino laws and regulations are structured similarly to the United States. For instance, the Filipino Civil Code states that: “[e]very person shall respect dignity, personality, privacy and peace of mind of his neighbors and other persons. Meddling with or disturbing the private life or family relations of another and similar acts shall produce a cause of action for damages, prevention and other relief." Unfortunately, there is no single Philippine law or rule that categorically regulates electronic commerce. Consequently, specific regulations governing the use of the Internet does not exist, leading to misuse of consumer information among businesses.
A couple of months ago, I visited the Philippines for the first time in 18 years. I realized that Filipinos generally accepted that their personal information was widely distributed. Many Filipinos received targeted, direct discount mailings from a wide variety of sources and people simply trashed them. They actually appreciated the offers from men's and women's apparel, grocery stores, automobile dealerships, consumer electronic shops, and many other sources. Although most Filipinos I encountered did not feel a sense of insecurity (and in fact enjoyed the efficiency of direct mailings), some were uncomfortable about the loose distribution of their personal information. Just now, some advocates are voicing their concerns and pushing legislation to implement strict laws on consumer privacy.
From a global perspective, regulating the use of consumer information is extremely difficult. Nations are governed by their own set of rules and cultures that may not align cohesively -- even if governed by an international organization. Once consumer information passes the borders of one country, the entire rules of the game generally change. With billions of people making transactions every day in addition to the rapid pace of technology, sometimes laws and regulations are simply bypassed.
V. Personal Perspectives and Principles
Collection and use of personal information is efficient and extremely useful if properly used. Although difficult to quantify, the impact of computer technology has provided tremendous benefits that outweigh the disadvantages. To ensure the proper use and privacy of consumer information, the distribution of such information must be systematically and structurally implemented and enforced. Basic privacy principles, like those from the European Union, must be followed. Laws and regulations already implemented by governments, businesses must ensure that the policies on privacy of consumer information are disclosed. If businesses decide to share or sell consumer information, that particular consumer must be informed about the transaction and grant permission. Furthermore, consumers who are already involved in a particular contract or subscription must have the opportunity to opt-out from the bind. For instance, mail subscriptions must have some way for people to remove themselves from the distribution list.
A few days ago, I received an electronic survey from a software magazine I am subscribed to. The survey consisted of several questions regarding my professional profile, organizational, and future subscriptions I would like to participate in. The magazine wanted to better understand my needs as well as provide other products and services it had to offer. By completing the survey, the software magazine was offering a $25 gift card to Best Buy (a consumer electronics store) as an incentive. I felt that not only would I receive a useful gift card, but I would more relevant material for my work in the future. This type of direct and efficient use of consumer information is very convenient for myself and works mutually. Generally, my experiences in the Internet and dealing with businesses have been favorable. Although I sometimes feel the waste in time with those I ignore, the use of consumer information today is generally useful and worthwhile. Furthermore, the role of laws and regulations provide a stable structure to follow, which become extremely vital to continue and enable the flurry of commercial activity.
Computer technology is morally neutral but its uses have caused social, legal, and ethical issues regarding the use of consumer information. The practice of deceptive and unfair sharing and selling of consumer information exists and continues to thrive today mainly due to the impact of computer technology. The U.S. government has attempted to keep pace with the rapid change of technology and has implemented the appropriate laws and regulations. Similarly, international organizations and other nations have recognized that consumers care deeply about the privacy and security of their own personal information and are looking for greater protection. Until basic principles and effective consumer privacy protections are implemented, consumers may remain wary of engaging with businesses, especially in electronic commerce, and this new, lucrative market will fail to reach its full potential. With the guidance of proper laws and regulations, the use of consumer information should be continued to ensure convenience and efficiency.
 A Gift of Fire, 2nd edition, Sara Baase, Prentice Hall, Copyright 2003
 Anderson's Business Law, 18th edition, Ivan Fox, David Twomey, Mariane Moody Jennings, Thompson Learning, Copyright 2002
 Privacy: It's Your Business,Whitepaper, Dan Goldstein, November 2003
 E-Com Legal Guide, The Philippines, Christopher Lim, http://www.apectelwg.org/apecdata/telwg/e-com/philapec.pdf
 Bush Signs Bill For Consumer Protection, http://www.ktvu.com/money/2682876/detail.html, December 4, 2003
 Consumer Privacy on the World Wide Web, Robert Pitofsky, July 21, 1998