It is not the Orwellian government “Big Brother” citizens have to worry about in protecting their privacy and freedom. It is instead “Nasty Sister” i.e. private companies that aggregate vast amounts of data on individuals and track their every move.
Of the two Nasty Sister is more evil because “she” on the surface is sweeter and seemingly more benign. After all, “she” can’t put you in jail or rob you of your freedoms.
Well…that’s not exactly the case…because the data collected by “her” can and does impact individuals’ abilities to obtain and keep credit, pay bills, acquire housing and get and retain employment. Instead of the authorities that are making these life-changing judgements based on information collected by the police it is companies relying on their own internal spying, data acquired from other firms and from credit reports.
What makes Nasty Sister especially dangerous is that there is relatively little oversight on how this data is used and handled and what is collected. In contrast “Big Brother” does have to answer ultimately to the public. With government you can turf the political lowlives out of office, even cause a revolution. You can’t storm the corporate boardroom as readily as the Bastille.
The recent controversy over cellphone tracking is just one very public example of this invasion of private lives by firms. It follows on the other hot issue of tracking individual online activities.
Yet there are other private sector invasions of personal lives that are just as insidious. One of which is the recent trend to require job applicants to their previous addresses with companies for background checks. Not just for high-risk employment that stipulate security clearances—where the “bad guys” could cause loss of life, injuries, harm national security and damage property--but for $10/hour typical contact center customer services, support and sales work.
The address tracking follows on the equally odious practice of performing credit checks on prospective employees. This last one is the reeking house arrest equivalent of Victorian-era debtors’ prisons. What is the logic in denying employment to someone who is otherwise qualified who was late paying their bills? Hmmm…wouldn’t giving them a job help them to repay their debts???
There is no overriding necessity for these intrusions. Are for example contact centers hotbeds of crime? Are agents and their unwitting supervisors putting their nations at grave risk by deliberately or carelessly having information fall into the wrong hands? Have there been widespread outbreaks of ID, asset and corporate documents theft, insider trading, reputations destroyed, property damaged and lives lost and individuals maimed via unscrupulous contact center staff?
Contact center agents are arguably one of the most carefully and extensively watched positions there is. Any risk factors--however slim--are mitigated by the extensive array of already-required and proven call and contact monitoring, data blanking and IT security tools such as secure desktops.
One can make the argument that “there is no such thing as too little information on prospective employees”. Also that “we know the risk is slight but what happens if something does happen?”
The problem with this logic that it is the equivalent to “there is no such thing as too little security” e.g. like requiring reception staff to wear Kevlar vests and having Uzi-toting guards patrolling call floors. It covers and lines the butts belonging to lazy, and/or incompetent management who can then abdicate their responsibility to properly assess risks and fairly screen individuals as individuals to vendors who profit from this insecurity and paranoia.
There are reasons for companies to be afraid but it isn't from the people they track, and collect data on. Instead it is from outside thieves that hack into private networks to steal data. What's valuable to companies is equally if not more valuable to crooks.
There is a public interest in tracking the activities of criminals and suspects. There is also a public good in uncovering and monitoring demographic trends i.e. where individuals as an aggregate are living, working, going to school, commuting and spending, whose information is vital for efficient allocation of both public and private sector resources. There are long-responsible and trusted mechanisms for both: law enforcement agencies and the Census Bureau that are overseen by departments that respectively that report to the public via their elected officials.
At the same time there is a public interest in the ability of firms to effectively market and serve their customers including determining their suitability and value. This creates economic value, activity, jobs and taxes.
There is however, no public interest in private data being used to unfairly restrict individual freedom. No more than there is for governments to go snooping into personal lives beyond what can be justified in a court of law.
Big Brother is answerable to the public in a democratic society. What is needed is an effective mechanism to make Nasty Sister equally responsible through a comprehensive, integrated, coherent and fair set of laws and regulations that can adapt as practices, technology and society change.