This morning I received a rather unexpected email. It came from a law firm representing plaintiffs in a class-action suit against the entertainment provider Netflix.

The message stated, "A settlement has been reached in a class-action lawsuit that claims Netflix unlawfully kept and disclosed information, including records on the movies and TV shows its customers viewed. Netflix denies that it has done anything wrong."

It’s not that I am particularly concerned or embarrassed about anything I have watched (mostly a lot of documentaries from TED and goofball comedies). It’s that Netflix may have "disclosed" this information to a third party … a party to which I might object had I been properly informed or made aware.

This "disclosure" is part of a growing trend in global commerce. Most large retailers, financial institutions, insurance companies and credit bureaus collect and disseminate otherwise private details of your transactions. While the obvious result of this data collection is better targeted marketing a la, "customers who bought (the stuff you just bought) also bought (this other stuff)," there is a much more serious dynamic unfolding in the background.

Susan Campbell, an independent privacy consultant, speaks to several aspects of the issue, "The lack of government regulation concerning the collection and use of online data has contributed to the overall privacy problem. Without federal guidelines and privacy laws, companies have had the freedom to create their own privacy rules."

First, there is a consumer privacy problem. Almost every commercial website tracks your presence. Most online and larger brick-and-mortar retailers track your consumption habits. They in turn, sell your data to aggregators, data miners and other analytical operations. They also purchase details about you that they don’t directly collect.

If you use any kind of credit/debit card or check, you leave a trail. If you go online — even if you’re just browsing — you leave a trail. If you use a discount card or coupon, you leave a trail. Often, if you just walk into larger stores, your presence can be tracked.

Secondly, as Campbell points out, there is very little federal policy to guard against excesses or to provide any recourse. Anything you say or do may be held against your credit-worthiness. You don’t have a right to confront your data collectors; and you sure don’t have a right to know the particulars of their use or calculations.

In short, you are subject to black box calculations about which you can do very little. Unconvinced? Just ask a credit bureau for the exact formula and values used to derive your credit score.

Fortunately, there’s a little hope on the horizon. The Obama White House has proposed a seven-point Consumer Bill of Rights to help protect your privacy. In brief, the seven points are:

—Individual Control: A right to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it. —Transparency: A right to easily understandable and accessible information about privacy and security practices

—Respect For Context: A right to expect that companies will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.

—Security: A right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.

—Access and Accuracy: A right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data is inaccurate.

—Focused Collection: A right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.

—Accountability: A right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

As consumers, we should ensure that neither Congress nor the Federal Trade Commission backslide from these proposed rights. Moreover, we should demand there be no black box calculations. Companies should be required to tell you exactly what data they gathered, exactly how it was used, to whom the data was transferred and to spell out the particulars of their formulae.

They should likewise be prohibited from denying you credit or access based on your refusal to submit to data collection.

For those worried about the onset of some Orwellian New World Order, this is your wake-up call. Of course, under present conditions, that call will also be logged.


Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at