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Tuesday, July 20, 2004


I was interviewed today by someone writing a guide about privacy annoyances. During the interview I was asked about drug-testing in the workplace and whether an employer could require an employee to undergo drug testing. I explained that in many cases an employer will require drug-testing prior to employing someone. I heard an audible gasp at the other end of the phone.
I stopped for a moment to explain the "other" side. (When privacy is concerned most people are polarized, employers vs. employees, data collectors vs. consumers, citizens vs. government, civil rights vs. security...the list goes on and on.) in this case he was obviously appalled that any employer could compel drug-testing.
I asked him to consider whether an employer who deals with children, heavy machinery, medical or high technology would, among other employers, be particularly concerned about drug use by employees? What about school bus drivers, I asked?
He conceded that there are special instances where drug-testing may be warranted. But does it have to be a special instance? Shouldn't an employer be entitled to know that their employees are drug-free? Can't a potential employee simply decide not to work for someone who requires a drug-free workforce. Aren't all customers entitled to interface with drug-free salespersons?
When it comes to security and Internet safety, I am generally considered pretty conservative. When it comes to privacy, I am usually considered pretty liberal. When security vs. privacy issues arise, I weigh them case by case.
Privacy is often seen as a shield and a sword. You're on one side of the issue or another. Never in-between. Yet, as this writer pointed out after a half-hour interview, it's mostly a case-by-case basis. What makes sense under the circumstances? What's the balance? Are we really worried about the United States becoming a nazi-like government? How much are we willing to give up for convenience or efficiency? Bob Evans of Information Week wrote about the over-reaction to the airlines sharing passenger name records...who cares if the airlines share information about your meal preferences, he posed. But in Europe this is considered especially problematic, since a meal preference may divulge your religious orientation or health conditions.
While I agree with Bob here, and think that privacy issues are often overblown in the press and by certain advocacy groups to get mentioned in the press, there is always the other side. And the issue of whether or not the passengers were given the choice of sharing this information with third parties, government or otherwise. Airlines and others may be surprised at how many passengers or customers would allow their personal information to be shared, responsibly, with government agencies to help improve security. Heck, it's worth the try...
Choice is the real issue. We should be able to give up some privacy in exchange for convenience.
Several years ago when EZPass was first introduced, I was holding out. I worried that "big brother" would know where I was and when. They could record how long it took me to get from one exit to another and maybe inform the state troopers to give me a speeding ticket after the fact. Then, I gave in to my daughter's pleading to get EZ-Pass and now I can't imagine ever having to dig through my purse for change or waiting in long lines at the George Washington Bridge tolls in the morning. I exchanged some personal information for convenience.
When special security programs are launched allowing frequent travlers to undergo special security clearance in exchange for quicker security checks at airports, I will once again exchange my privacy for convenience.
Yet I refuse to use my supermarket frequent shopper card when I shop. Instead I explain to the checkout person that I have forgotten my card and s/he helpfully scans theirs. It's no one's business what I buy or how I pay for what I buy. I don't get any special benefit out of giving this information away.
it's always balancing...what's it worth? what are the risks of my information being misused? how much do I trust those asking for it? what I am getting in exchange for the risks? and does the convenience factor outweight the risks?
I am still on the sidelines with RFID. But I'll be covering that for an upcoming column at Information Week, so I won't rant about it here.
You can read the piece I wrote for Information Week "from the months of Babes" explaining what kids have told me about how they view privacy and security. Interestingly enough they trust Microsoft best. When we dug a bit further into this, we realized that it was the operating system and the daily interface that they trusted. (Apple was the only other fully-trusted brand suggested by one of the teens, and by the only Mac user in the bunch. :-))
Yet, AOL wasn't in the top three, even among AOL users.
what can we learn from this? It's all a matter of perspective. :-)


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