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Who is really stealing your privacy?

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
  • Amitai Etzioni: Online privacy advocates fear government, but businesses are the real threat
  • Etzioni: Corporations track what you buy, read, visit, drink; whom you call, e-mail, date
  • Some shadow you, keeping detailed dossiers on you, to sell the information, he writes
  • Government protected medical and bank records, he says, and can help online privacy

Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is a sociologist and professor of international relations at George Washington University and the author of several books, including "Security First" and "New Common Ground." He was a senior adviser to the Carter administration and has taught at Columbia and Harvard universities and the University of California, Berkeley.

(CNN) -- Privacy advocates are up in arms. They say the Obama administration is seeking to increase the government's surveillance powers. The White House is out to require internet companies to keep trapdoors so the government can read any and all messages.

Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation called the proposal "a drastic anti-privacy, anti-security, anti-innovation solution in search of a problem." These privacy advocates remind me of someone who locks his front door only to return home and find that thieves have emptied his home through the back door and the windows he left wide open. These days, the main enemy of privacy is not Big Brother, but a whole bunch of Little Brothers: profit-making corporations.

Two kinds of corporations keep track of what you buy, read, visit, drink; whom you call, e-mail, and date; and lots more. Some merely track your activity on their site as part of their regular business, to help them sell you stuff. This is true from Amazon to Zappos. Other corporations make shadowing you -- and keeping very detailed dossiers on you -- their main line of business. They sell this information to all comers. Just one such company, Choicepoint, has records on more than 220 million people.

Most Americans probably know corporations are tracking them, but they may well be unaware of the latest ways corporations are carving up whatever remains of their privacy.

Corporations make shadowing you ... their main line of business. They sell this information to all comers.
--Amitai Etzioni

Cell phone companies offer a service that allows lovers, ex-wives and ex-husbands, lawyers, or anyone else to find out where you are hanging out. We are accustomed to tracking tools like cookies, which are installed on your computer by websites you visit. Cookies are used to identify you and to remember your preferences. They make shopping easier, but they also give sites the power to spy on you.

We have learned about devices that allow us to clear cookies from our computer, but corporations are installing "supercookies" that are very difficult to detect, and if removed, can secretly reinstall themselves.

You might think you can hide behind pseudonyms and use multiple cyber-mailboxes so trackers will be unable to profile you. However, some companies have developed software to match pseudonyms used on message boards and blogs with real names and personal e-mail addresses. The subjects of this tracking -- who are unaware that their anonymity has been stripped -- include people who use online pseudonyms to discuss sensitive topics, such as mental illness or medical conditions.

Beyond tracking and surveillance, select corporations keep dossiers on any crimes you have committed, any divorces, political leanings, the gender and age of any children in the household, as well as interests in topics including religion, the Bible, gambling and adult entertainment.

Privacy advocates have sharply objected to proposals for the government to employ "deep packet inspection," a powerful tool used to analyze the contents of data sent on the internet, to fight viruses and cybercrime. But now, private companies offer this service for a fee.

If you think that what the private sector knows about you stays in the private sector, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you. In what must be the ultimate irony, the corporations not only do almost everything the federal government has been banned from doing since the 1974 Privacy Act -- as well as Congress' 2003 termination of Total Information Awareness, a Pentagon surveillance program -- but they also make the stuff available to the government.

For instance, Choicepoint has 35 contracts with government agencies, including the Department of Justice, and through it, the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, IRS and the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Your options are limited and not very appealing, to put it mildly. Some say, "Get over it; privacy is dead." Or "assume nothing is private anymore." You might try to return to the olden days: Pay only with cash, smash your PC and GPS and cell phone, and wear a burqa. Or you may move to Europe, which has much stronger privacy protection laws than the U.S. but, as far as I can tell, often does not enforce them.

Or: Take a deep breath and realize that the only one who can protect you is the Big Bad Wolf -- the federal government. It is the one that, since 2000, has banned the selling of medical records, previously used by mortgage companies to call in loans of those who got cancer, or by employers in their hiring decisions. It is the government that required banks to keep your financial records private. And it is the government that is working to create new internet privacy laws and methods and a new office to enforce them. For example, the Federal Trade Commission has recommended a "do not track" mechanism that would allow computer users to opt out of surveillance by companies.

I grant you that long experience teaches us that the government itself must be watched. However, if you think that it is the main threat to your privacy these days, I humbly suggest that you think again.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.