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Information Gathering: Who Wants to Know What about Whom?

How much are you willing to pay for convenience? Not just money and time, but information? The latter probably depends on how much you trust the person or organization that's asking for it. Two privacy experts explain how the issue of privacy relates to the press, government, and business, and help you decide how much information is too much information to give.
This chapter is from the book

We've talked some now about the types of information that might be collected about you and the things you might want to be worried about. Now let's talk about what is really happening, what kinds of data collection is actually going on, who is using the data, and maybe why.

In this chapter, we discuss the evolution of information gathering. We start by talking about how people are curious about other people, especially celebrities, and how far our culture thinks that curiosity can go, appropriately or not. We'll move on to talk about news reporting—other people gathering information for us that we couldn't likely gather ourselves. From there has evolved the idea of open government information, easily obtainable these days via the Internet. And then we're going to get personal with you and talk about information gathering about you, your preferences, purchases, and activities online and off. Different kinds of information gathering and the motivations behind them are discussed a lot in this chapter. We want you to understand the pros and cons, from all sides, so that you can make intelligent choices in your own situations.

First, let's consider our own culture and how and what we like to know about ourselves and others.

We All Want to Know about Other People

We do? Yes, we do; just look at our behavior.

As human beings we are extremely interested in other human beings and how we relate to one another.

We want to know about movie stars, music performers, actors, elected officials and other types of people with celebrity. These people are "public" people and even if we think they are entitled to a modicum of privacy, we don't really grant it. We avidly read articles about the homes they own, the businesses in which they invest, the people they marry, and the activities of their children. We call it news. Of course, it's news about entertaining people, so it's also entertainment.

Some of us cheer when people we think we "like" do well. We do that for San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds' terrific home run pace this 2001 spring baseball season, for example. Other times we take morbid pleasure in the downfall of a celebrity. For example, Robert Downey, Jr. having another bit of trouble with his drug treatment program. We cheer or boo Mr. Bonds, depending on our feelings about the San Francisco Giants or congratulate ourselves that we don't have the sort of drug dependency, like Mr. Downey, that keeps us in and out of drug treatment centers. We sigh through the sagas of celebrity divorces, choosing sides just exactly as though we really know the people involved. We are angry on behalf of one of the couple and frantically defend their actions, just as if we knew what we were talking about.

Before September 11, 2001, most days the top news stories on many of the online news outlets included stories about famous or important people. Even now, stories about people get a lot of notice. Just look most days at the top news. Netscape's Netcenter (http://www.netscape.com) is shown as an example in Figure 3.1, but almost any other news source would be the same. The lead articles typically are not only about the President's proposed tax program, but also about the activities of the President's daughters. The sports articles contain descriptions of yesterday's contests and a number of articles about the off-field activities (both good and bad) of some sports personages. Human interest? Of course it is. Clearly, the publishers of these pages and other pages and printed materials know we're interested and that is what they provide.

Figure 3.1 Netscape's NetCenter.

We all want to know about the activities of our friends and neighbors, too. We want to know where they are going, what they are doing, what they just admired at the store, and what sports contest they are interested in. We never think of this as prying or invasive. Some of us have nosy neighbors who we find a pain. Some of us are the nosy neighbors.

Our interest in celebrities is an extension of that curiosity about the world we are in. We learn to emulate people we admire, and in many ways we learn who to admire by seeing who other people are interested in. We make celebrities of the people who create art we admire, and we learn to appreciate some art because people we admire like it. We learn what athletic feats are marvelous from stories about sports stars, and we admire athletes because they perform marvelous feats. We make celebrities of people who act the way we should or wish we could act, and in turn we try to act like them.

In general, our culture seems to accept the idea that reporting on the activities of celebrities is acceptable as long as the activities happen in public. We have even created an industry of celebrity watching. We have special television programs and channels devoted to it. We have sections of news-oriented Web publications such as the Living Section of MSNBC.COM shown in Figure 3.2. We subscribe to magazines that are devoted to it. We turn to pages in our daily newspapers for entertainment about entertainers. We can't seem to get enough information about our celebrities. We want to know everything about them, public or not. We don't like to think that our interest might be invasive.

Figure 3.2 A typical page from the MSNBC.COM Web site, Living section.

It can be, though. Intense public interest might have contributed to the death of Diana, the former Princess of Wales. Certainly, some celebrities go to great lengths to keep their weddings private—or at least to make certain that the photographs that are released are the official ones, rather than ones stolen via telephoto lenses. And two baseball players originally from Japan, now playing with the Seattle Mariners, have recently refused to speak with the Japanese media anymore. One player was unable to get in his car and drive to work at the ballpark because there were so many photographers and reporters in his driveway. Clearly he felt that public interest in his celebrity had gone too far.

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Last Update: November 17, 2020