Your zip code, m’am?
A few years ago on a sunny, summer day I was shopping at Linens and Things where at the checkout, a young girl was training to be a cashier. As I moved up closer to the cash register, I was determined to make a stand for my rights. And so when the young cashier asked for my zip code, I happily replied “90210” (the 5-digit mark of the U.S. Post Office for Beverly Hills, CA and also the name of a hit television series about beautiful, young Californians.)
The young girl looked at me in awe, assuming I must be one of the chosen few to live in such a celebrated paradise (I was flattered). A smile crossed my face as she started to enter the prized numerals into her machine, that is until the stern-looking, older woman standing behind her flashed me a dirty look and said in a rather condescending tone, “She’s not from Beverly Hills.”
No, no I’m not. Not even close. But that’s not the point. At the time of checkout, it should not matter where I live. That’s personal… and I’d like to keep it that way.
A personal crusade
The battle for my personal information is one in which I have become a daily warrior, fighting off annoying but persistent invaders for another piece of me. Linens and Things was just another skirmish. I won the battle, lost the joke. They never did get my right zip code, but it’s the war ahead that frightens me.
It wasn’t always like this. Although Radio Shack was one of the first retailers to require your phone number before you could purchase a 99-cent battery, it is only in the last few years that just about every store attempts this for at least one extended period during its annual business cycle. If a company wants to ask me to participate in market research, and not appear as a demanding, intrusive bully, then I might consider it. But this is not how it is done. And for the life of me, I cannot understand why.
When first asked for my zip code or phone number during visits to other stores, I would answer no, I don’t care to participate. The result, and this is the truth, was one of the following: a) a dumbfounded look because the cashier didn’t know what buttons to press, b) a noticeable downward shift in attitude toward me, or c) just plain rudeness. I noticed that if you played the game with their rules – they ask, you respond– then you were treated with respect. Tired of rude behavior, I decided to answer….but incorrectly. I gave up on 90210, too obvious. Instead I choose the farthest state and area code from their store and felt a bit of satisfaction with throwing off their database. I also felt sad.
I shake my head every time I hear people complacently respond to these unnecessary questions. When did we start sharing our personal information with strangers? Why have we become so complacent that we tell anyone who asks exactly what they want to know? Where can we hide when everyone knows where we live? Who wants to be a lemming anyway? We all know where that leads.
When did we lose the right to our privacy?
In Orwell’s classic tale, 1984, and in 2006, big brother is watching over us at all times. There is no safe place anyone can be. There is nowhere to turn, because we’ve turned ourselves inside out for all to view. It seems that those in charge – government, university researchers, corporations – can always find some professional reason why their inappropriate behavior is acceptable. For example, looking into the private lives of people using the internet through research queries. Their research of unsuspecting, unconsenting subjects (those benignly using internet search engines) to further enhance their academic reputations, company marketing efforts, etc. with no concern for the privacy of others is just one more reason why people don’t trust those in charge.
It’s the same about the question of ethics in the media. Why such a discussion carries on baffles me. Either you have morals, values, ethics or you don’t. They are not like a coat you take off when you enter a building. It is something you carry inside of you that you apply to your entire day – in personal encounters and in the work environment. It’s not something you can pick and choose.
It seems that once again, man is subservient to the machine. Professor Etzioni said that “we build technology that answers questions, so we want to test it on actual questions people are asking.” Well rather than acting like Cortes when he invaded the Aztecs, maybe researchers should ask their subjects if they want to be willing participants. African slaves were not asked. It was wrong then and it is still wrong now. You can’t take what is not yours and profit from it, even if you believe it is for the common good.
Respect for privacy
Respecting the privacy of the individual, being honest and factual in reporting the news, having respect for the personal, intellectual property of others – what do all these have in common? They represent ways in which a good society conducts itself with regard to its relations with one another. It’s about doing the right thing. It’s the golden rule. It’s the two stone tablets of Moses. It’s the social contract we have with each other to keep order and the peace.
Yet, media outlets, both online and traditional print, radio and television, can make a million excuses why they can let rumor and innuendo pervade their airwaves and pages, why sloppy research becomes fact, why political agenda, a publicist’s propaganda morph into news, why secret invasions into the personal lives and habits of others become justified by those who like to study humans as bugs under a microscope. Why? It comes down to no respect for your fellow man and his privacy.
Glaser, M. (2004). On the wild, woolly internet, old ethics rules do apply. Online journalism review. August 8.
Shapiro, A.L. (1999). Privacy for sale (pp. 158-165). The control revolution. New York: Perseus.
Hafner, K. (2006, August 23). Researchers yearn to use AOL logs, but they hesitate. New York Times.