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Privacy In Days Of Online Banking, Credit Cards, Phone Companies... in Network Age

By Vipul Shah

In today's world Privacy issues crop up every hour unless you are living in isolation away from civilization.

There are two perspective to the whole issue. One is from developed/aware markets like USA and another is like India where most people don't even know they have right to privacy.

For USA......

In last 4 years Privacy has been one of the biggest issue in mind of consumer, reason is proliferation of Internet in every home. There has been lot of debate on who can collect data about you, how much data can be collected, how it can be used and what to do in case of mis use.

In western world it is more or less established that companies (including internet companies) can't sell your data (without your permission) to any third party. Also what data they collect is also known to you as a consumer/employee of organisation. There has been exceptions like

  1. One internet business selling toys when it went bankrupt, it tried to find some money by selling its customer database to rival company. But by law they can't do so. So rival company purchased this entire company (for peanuts as business was ZERO) and acquired database in spite of consumers having assurance that data wont be sold to third party (since sale of company doesn't mean sale of data.. they could use this loop hole).
  2. Hacking of data by criminals..
    Many online company's (retailers) keep customer data (including their demography information like age, gender, income, address, marital status, kids , credit card number, interests, hobbies etc) on their servers which are on internet. And often this servers are not safe/secure (as software which makes server may need to be upgraded which is often not done by less then alert systems executives). And end result is some hackers come, hack and lift entire database and then misuse or sell it to organized gangs involved in milking money out of this. Most of this crime is done from russia (or neighbouring countries) based gangs. Going rate for 1000 credit card numbers with security 3 digit numbers are $200 to $300.
  3. by rogue companies.
    Companies in USA are often accused of compiling database of users and their activity without knowledge of users. Microsoft has been often accused of this. Real Network (maker of popular audio/video software) is also in this game (they were making database of their software user's music listening taste/habits by making their software on users PC connect to their server via internet and submit this information daily).

USA today has another problem of Identity theft because of their computer based system of person's identity. Unlike our ration card , USA has Social Security Number issued to every resident of USA. Which is root of their life their (based on this number they buy home, get credit cards, open bank account, get driving license etc). Since for doing any of this activity, physical paper with social security number is not needed, one can easily fall vicitim to identity fraud. Criminal usually gets hold of your Social Security number via one of many methods and then opens credit card in your name and uses it to run up 1000s of dollars debt on it. Recently elderly people were victim of their house (in which they were living) being sold/mortgaged without their knowledge by criminals who made identity papers from their Social Security number and sold houses.

There is very little one can do to stop above except be alert and keep buying your own credit report from 3 credit rating agencies and verify all information in it (wrong info may tip you off that someone is playing havoc with you).

Now as for India....

In India most people don't know what rights they have and this probably is cause of lack of privacy.

Today when you go for interview person will routinely asked if he is married, has children, and which caste person belongs to (which never happens in western world as this can be called discrimination based on caste/color/marital status etc).

Unlike American companies, Indian companies don't have any specific privacy policy as regards their customer's data. They routinly sell it to other companies (who cross sell their products to same consumers). Even if you come to know that information you submitted to one of bank for saving account was utilized by other company to offer you credit card or sell magazine subscription, there is little you can do by way of legal redressal.

Also In India, companies don't loose reputation or face embarassment when it becomes known that their customer database is sold or leaked or hacked. Its not considered important.

Best example of how little right we have to privacy is our latest income tax return forms. They now don't limit to your souces of income, investments and deductions but also how you spent that money after paying tax (one may think once you pay tax, that money is yours and you may do what you like with it without informing anyone). They demand how much you spent on various personal expenses (not related or deducted from your business/profession) like home phone, mobile use, electricity, travel etc. India is probably one of very rare and few countries who does this (and gets away with it). Only other country who could be doing this was probably russia in cold war days.

In India one doesn't have much of identity theft problem because very little is based on single number (like Social Security Number or our Income Tax PAN). Also one doesn't easily get credit card, or loans from bank just by using someone else's identity. Banks here often come and visit your home and find out more about you from other sources before they hand out money. In USA you can apply for loan on bank's website and decision as to loan given or not and interest rate is given in 5-7 seconds on internet itself. Then money is credit to your bank account or sent to you by cheque.

One weakness in our economy about personal data is, that people often give away their personal data (demography....taste/age/ and whole lot of info about themselves) when company comes for survey and gives some freebies (gifts..) in exchange of data. Most of us never understand their our personal data is not worth one free spoon or bar of soap or shampoo.

Today you may be getting many calls from

  1. marketing companies offering mobile phones
  2. marketing companies offering car loans from foreign banks
  3. marketing companies offering credit cards
  4. marketing companies offering times share resort

We never wonder for a second how did they get our phone number or our details without we giving them. Now this data is coming to them from variety of sources like if you are member of certain organisation or club or association, their members books contain all this information they need to target you for their offer. If you ever ask them how they got your number/name, usually answer is "computer gave us". Many of this organisations buy data from sources like Nationalised banks (by "convincing" branch manager to part with database of all account holder) and this gives them 1000s of target audience in very small locality (less then one kilometer).

Copyright 1997-2002 Dr. Raj Mehta. All rights reserved.