Expectation of Privacy Is a Very Lax Standard

Updated: Opinion: The White House's defense of the latest telephone data examination case is that consumers have no expectation of privacy for telephone numbers and call lists. After years of privacy intr

With the latest allegations that the White House and the National Security Agency have been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, backers of the program have routinely cited a legal concept known as "expectation of privacy."

The phrase references a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision that narrowly concluded that people do not expect privacy about the numbers they dial because they give those numbers to various telephone companies.

In the 27 years since that decision was handed down, the Web has done quite a bit to make people assume that a great deal of their lives are up for public consumption.

In the e-commerce world, retailers and manufacturers routinely ask for consumers to give up a piece of their privacy—personal contact information—in exchange for something, such as discounts, recall alerts, warranty assistance, tech support and customized services (think Amazon, with its book recommendations).

What retailers and suppliers have discovered is that there is a distinct age divide when it comes to privacy.

There is a disconnect between what senior retail marketers expect consumers will give up privacy for and what younger consumers actually will do.

The younger consumers seem much more willing to surrender their data, not necessarily because they find the lure of the incentive so great, but because they assume that their private data is already out there, so why not?

Less the digital divide than the cynical connection, younger Americans have simply assumed that their privacy is nil.

This explains why members of Congress and veteran media commentators—who tend to be sharply beyond their puberty years—have been so aghast at the telephone records grab, while surveys of American consumers show reactions closer to yawns than outrage.

/zimages/1/28571.gifTo read more about privacy groups reaction to the NSAs collection of phone records, click here.

A couple of months ago, I was involved in a research project wherein we interviewed lots of physicians.

One of the questions involved a service where the physicians would get instant e-mail and IM alerts when anything major happened impacting any of the drugs they routinely prescribed.

The same age split that exists for retail consumers happened for the doctors, but in the reverse.

Younger physicians resisted the program, as they didnt want to risk such information getting to pharmaceutical companies, who would bombard them with pitches. But the more experienced physicians had few objections, mostly because they assumed that the pharmaceuticals already had such data.

Next Page: Phone records.