Home Education Magazine
January-February 2003 - Articles and Columns
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Homeschooling and Family Privacy
Shhhhh! Don't tell anyone--this is a column about privacy.
Seriously, it's about what privacy means; why it is important to us as families and as homeschoolers; why privacy is an increasing concern; and what we can do to maintain our privacy.
What does privacy mean?
The term privacy as used in this column means the responsible management of information about our families. It does not refer to keeping deep dark secrets, hiding information we are ashamed of, or being anti-social or anti-community.
Why is it important?
? People need privacy to preserve a sense of integrity, personal worth, and self-respect. When we do not or cannot maintain our privacy, we feel used, violated, exposed. We begin to lose our sense of being responsible people managing our own lives.
? Privacy is essential if we are to maintain responsibility and control over our lives and our families. When someone knows our name, they have a certain power over us. We are put on guard when a stranger calls us by name. The same goes for information. We are often uneasy when someone knows something about us that we don't want them to know or that we haven't told them. "Aren't you the people who live in the white house on the corner?" "You must make about $35,000 a year." "I pulled you over for going 10 miles over the speed limit, and I see that you were ticketed in November, 2001 for speeding." We realize instinctively that when people have information about us, they have power over us as well. Even more serious is the power that people and institutions have over us when they have information about us and we don't even know they have it or are sharing it with others.
? When we work to maintain our privacy, we set a good example for our children. We let them know that they, too, can and need to take responsibility for managing information about themselves, for deciding with whom they will share it, because in so doing, they are giving that person or institution power over them.
? Privacy helps minimize errors. All other things being equal, the more data that is collected about people, the greater the chance that some of it will be inaccurate, which can lead to serious consequences, depending on how the information is being used.
? Privacy helps minimize labeling and scapegoating. Large amounts of data present challenges to those managing the data. One common approach is to categorize and label both the data and the people to whom the data refers. Then it is very difficult to avoid treating people as categories and labels rather than as individual human beings. This is particularly true because the information that is easiest to collect and is most often collected is that which can easily be quantified. Income level, test scores, grade point average, blood pressure are examples of identifiers that are often used to measure people and often lead to focusing on the numbers rather than on the person connected to them.
? In addition, as homeschoolers, we are viewed as different and therefore have extra visibility in many databases. This means that any other out-of-the-ordinary bit of data that is linked to us is more likely to be exaggerated and trigger a response. "That family is homeschooling AND the parents are not college-educated/they had a low birth weight baby/they did not take their children to pre-school screening. We HAVE to do something."
Dealing with privacy questions as homeschoolers can also be challenging. First, privacy obviously requires a balance. How sad and lonely life would be if we didn't reveal information when it was appropriate as a way of connecting with others and giving and receiving help and support. Second, some stereotypes of homeschoolers cast us as paranoid isolationists. Therefore, homeschoolers who express concerns about privacy sometimes receive an unwarranted knee-jerk negative reaction.
What's happened to our privacy?
? Americans are now required to provide unnecessary and unrelated information to obtain legal documents from the government that most people want or need, such as birth certificates, social security numbers, and drivers licenses. For example, to get a birth certificate and request a social security number in Wisconsin, the mother of a newborn must provide personal information about herself and her husband, including things like their employment a year before the birth, highest grade each of them completed in school, month that the mother's prenatal care began, cigarette and alcohol use, weight gain or loss during pregnancy, etc. This information is certainly not needed to record a birth or issue a social security number. The fact that it is demanded just after a birth makes it easier to collect--what new parent feels like worrying about a form at such a special time?
Information gathered in such unfair ways is stored, sorted, used, shared, and made available to government agencies, marketers and other business people, and the general public. (Medical information that is linked to a specific person's name, such as John Brown's blood pressure, is generally not available to the general public or marketers, but it is available to the government and major research organizations.)
For example, for $250, anyone can purchase from the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) a computerized file with the "name, date of birth, address, gender, license type, license number and expiration date" of all of the four million licensed drivers in Wisconsin. The DMV receives several requests a month for this information. For $5, you can get a copy of anyone's driving record. Some other states, such as Texas, offer similar information, while others, like Kansas, only release information about individuals who have given their permission. As a result, the only way people living in Wisconsin can prevent such information about them from being released is to somehow find out that the information is being released but that there's an "opt-out" provision and then file the appropriate form with the DMV. On the other hand, in states like Kansas, privacy is appropriately safeguarded but people can "opt-in" and have the information released if they want to.
The Selective Service's so-called "Privacy Act Statement" is actually an un-privacy statement. It's a list of all the organizations and people, including the general public, who can access the information 18-year-old men are required by law to provide. If the word privacy can be applied to such a statement, the word itself has lost its meaning. (The statement is available at www.sss.gov/privacy.htm.)
? In recent years the government has dramatically increased programs designed to help children who have disabilities, who come from "troubled homes," who don't appear to meet the standards that have been set for what professionals consider "normal development," etc. As part of this effort, masses of data are being collected about essentially all families.
Many professionals who collect data have blinders on. They don't really think about where it's going or what the ramifications are. Moreover, a steady stream of new clients is needed to ensure continued funding for many programs and to prevent professionals from losing their jobs. Any one of a large number of entries in a person's record can trigger a professional to see a problem that needs to be corrected. Thus many people are drawn into programs they may not really need or want.
? Additional pressure to collect, store, and disseminate information comes from marketers who are willing to pay for information about people's income levels, preferences, and buying habits; insurance companies that claim they need people's medical records; financial institutions that want credit records; etc.
? Federal and state legislatures have bowed to these pressures. Statutes allow the collection and storage of data and require that we take action to protect our privacy (for example, by filling out those privacy notices from banks, credit card companies, insurance companies, etc.) rather than requiring that institutions get our permission to collect, store, use, and share such information.
? Statutes permitting collaboration that were passed in the 1990s allow information about individuals to be shared among schools, district attorneys, the juvenile court system, police departments, and government agencies. This greatly increases the spread of information any of these groups has collected and decreases our privacy.
? Computers make it easy to collect, store, sort, and distribute information about individuals and organizations. The protection we used to enjoy because of the time consuming and tedious work involved in collecting and dealing with information is a thing of the past.
? The confidentiality that used to exist between us and our doctors, lawyers, counselors, pastors, etc. is being eroded by statutes requiring many of these professionals to report suspected child abuse, abnormalities in children's development, etc. (Pastors are generally exempted from such requirements.)
? Most recently, the federal government's attempts to counter terrorism are taking a toll on privacy in ways that affect our daily lives. For example, the recently passed Homeland Security Act gives government agencies new authority to collect and use information about individuals and groups. Databases can be compiled that combine people's personal records with information the government has and corporate records. There could be an electronic file on each of us that contains our credit card purchases, tax returns, speeding tickets, e-mails, web sites we've visited, trips we've taken, and more.
What We Can Do
? We can be more circumscribed about information we provide. We can make it our general practice to refuse to give our phone number, zip code, social security number, etc. (Places that use social security numbers for identification purposes often have another way of assigning us an identification number.) The fewer times we give our social security number or telephone number, the more difficult it will be for someone to develop an extensive file on us simply by using these numbers.
? We can be careful not to assume that professionals really have the authority to require information they are asking for. We can begin by asking if the information they are requesting is really required. If they claim that information we do not want to give them is "required by law," we can ask for a copy of the statute containing the requirement, possibly refusing to provide the information until they have shown us the statute.
? We can recognize that increasingly we will have to take steps to opt out of a wide range of databases. If we don't take such action, more and more information about us will be collected, recorded, used, and spread.
? We can find out if the state in which we live sells information about people who have drivers licenses and, if so, whether an "opt-out" option is available for people who do not what information about them sold. If such a program exists, we can sign up for it, letting legislators know that people use and appreciate such programs.
? Some states have directories of immunization records that can be accessed by health professionals, insurance companies, schools, hospitals and clinics, and state and county agencies dealing with health and human services. We can find out if our state has such a directory by calling the state department of health. We can also ask if there is an opt-out procedure that prevents families from being included or allows them to have their names removed. This is especially important now for people who have reservations about or are opposed to forced vaccinations because the Homeland Security Act empowers government officials to declare a state of emergency and force all citizens to be vaccinated.
? We can work to minimize the information telemarketers have about us. Many people find calls from telemarketers annoying. In addition, the more personal information about our families spreads through the telemarketing system, the more privacy we lose. Some states now have "Do Not Call" lists; telemarketers are legally prohibited from calling anyone on the list. To find out if your state has such a list and how you can get on it, visit www.privacycorps.com/pages/faq.htm#q3.
Sometimes it pays to contact telemarketers directly. For example, Tri-Media Marketing Services maintains and sells lists of homeschoolers. To find out if Tri-Media has your name on its list and/or to have your name deleted, call them at 1-800-874-4062 extension 110 and ask for Michelle.
Our privacy is being seriously undermined. If we are to maintain responsibility for our families, we need to work to minimize the amount and kinds of information that we give to other or allow them to collect. Fortunately, there are important steps we can take to manage personal information.
© 2003 Larry and Susan Kaseman
January-February 2003 - Articles and Columns
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