Commentary: We've got to fight the powers that pry

The coin of the modern economy is information, gossip is the essence of our culture, and the snoopers into the intimate details of your life are everywhere-and anyone. Privacy is a boring subject, taken for granted until the moment...

The coin of the modern economy is information, gossip is the essence of our culture, and the snoopers into the intimate details of your life are everywhere-and anyone. Privacy is a boring subject, taken for granted until the moment a stalker has your address, an employer reads your mocking e-mail, or your children are approached, online or in the real world, by strangers who know too much about them.

But it is not just the creepy stuff. The main assault on our privacy comes from the most respectable of quarters: honest businesspeople seeking to make a buck, seeing if they can match you up with what they're selling or simply convert you to their product, candidate, or cause.

Honest or not, they're launching an assault on your privacy, and that will be the assumption of this column. It is the hope of this columnist that you, and we, can do something about it.

Most of the battles so far have been lost. For example, there was an important bill passed by Congress in 1999, the Financial Services Modernization Act, that allows banks, insurers, and stockbrokers to merge their businesses-including their data on you. So the guy who sells you insurance can poke around in your bank loan records or check your stock portfolio. An attempt to insert a strong privacy clause, giving consumers the right to choose whether to share their information-called "opt in"-was beaten back by an intense lobbying effort.

But there's some good news, too.

When AOL took over Time Warner, the major prize was the ability to combine the information that the various subsidiaries of this mammoth new organization had gathered. The electronic footprints that AOL's millions of members leave on the Internet could now be combined with details of their other consumer habits-whether one subscribes to the Playboy channel or ESPN, for instance-to form a devastatingly complete portrait of people's private lives. It was a given that the new company's data miners would be able to drill through this massive pit, unearthing and then smelting all they can find about you and your neighbors.

It didn't quite come off as planned. A single congressman, Rep. Ed Markey, threw a legal wrench in the works. The Massachusetts Democrat, who has made privacy his top concern in Congress, remembered that there was a law restraining the marketing behavior of cable operators, which just happened to be what Time Warner was. Markey wrote to the FCC to remind the agency, sharply, that these privacy rules apply to any other service offered by that cable operator. So the happy result, in this rare instance, is that the FCC approved the merger with those restraints spelled out in bold print.

But don't count on that being the norm in this new world, where personal identifying information is the richest ore to be mined. An army of lobbyists stands ready to prevent any government restraint on that activity. "Let us administer our own codes of behavior," the lobbyists cry. "Trust us."

Don't think so. Industry self-regulation does not work because there are just too many overeager or unscrupulous folks out there who know the value of personal data and are determined to traffic in it.

Privacy is an issue of bipartisan concern, and the more we learn about the invasions of it, the more we can demand in the way of action. My aim will be to help stoke that interest, keeping readers informed on what's happening and how they can get involved. For starters, check out the ongoing coverage at EPIC.org: Electronic Privacy Information Center, Center for Democracy & Technology, Junkbusters, and Privacy Foundation. Privacy, like water or air, is one of those things you miss only when it's gone.

Aseem Batra contributed to this column.