Column: A Boogeyman in Every Corner

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Privacy advocates should post four or five boilerplate quotes on the Web so consumer reporters looking for so-called balance on Internet-marketing-related articles can simply go to the site and lift ones that are appropriate.

Call it, a place where unchallenged, Chicken Little claims reside for the cutting and pasting of anyone who needs them.

No matter how much an advance improves our lives, if it involves keeping records on computers, one can count on the consumer press to find a privacy advocate who will parrot the same groundless fears, over and over and over again.

A recent example was a story in The Wall Street Journal about how the Forsyth County School District 50 miles north of Atlanta has made updates of students' day-to-day progress available to parents online. Through the so-called Parent Connect program, Mom and Dad know if Brittany isn't turning in her homework or if Josh failed the day's math quiz. No more goofing off and keeping Mom and Dad in the dark about it.

According to the story, "many have been staggered by the effectiveness of the system," which cost all of $69,000 to install in 22 schools.

There are, of course, legitimate concerns that students could hack into the system and change their grades. Fair enough, but we're still talking about the electronic equivalent of using a black pen to carefully change an 'F' to a 'B,' the type of practice that has gone on for as long as students have been graded.

But, of course, no story that involves record keeping online is complete without a privacy boogeyman.

So here we go:

"Meanwhile, privacy advocates worry that, in the future, cash-strapped schools might be tempted to make commercial use of such data," the Journal piece said. " 'Schools have to be careful about who has access to the information,' says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington."

Would someone please explain why? How could Josh's quiz score in the hands of a marketer possibly harm him?

Never mind that the story isn't about creating new records, only about making existing ones more readily available to parents. What if a cash-strapped school made them available commercially?

Might Josh's parents want to be made aware of a product that could increase his math scores? Sure.

Brittany's parents would certainly be interested to hear about a product that would help her organize and be more disciplined.

On a less altruistic note, it's a safe bet that Josh also would want to hear from a local limousine company about a prom-night discount.

And spare us the predator argument. Common sense and experience dictate that predators have astronomically better odds in malls and chat rooms.

If selling things to teen-agers isn't inherently wrong, which as a society we have clearly determined it's not, then why shouldn't a marketer be able to target, say, honor students who may be more likely to be as conscientious in fiscal matters as they are in academic ones?

Um, gee, might marketers with access to such information then be able to offer their services less expensively?

Note that in the story, Rotenberg doesn't explain how commercial use of such data could be harmful. Since it involves minors, he isn't even held to the low standards to which consumer reporters usually hold privacy advocates.

The if-it-can-save-just-one-child crowd has got people so conditioned, this cockamamie privacy claim is allowed to go unchallenged.

Nope, to warrant a quote in this case, all Rotenberg has to say is the equivalent of "those eeeeevil marketers might use the information to sell things" as if selling by definition is sinister. would certainly help him and other privacy advocates save valuable phone time with reporters.


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