Privacy: How to Protect What's Left

How to protect what's left


Privacy: How to Protect What's Left, by Robert Ellis Smith, New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1979, 346 pp., $10

On April 29, 1979, CBS News correspondent Mike Wallace interviewed Johnny Carson on "60 Minutes." There quickly ensued debate about how much Carson makes on the "Johnny Carson Show."

Carson: Nobody's ever quoted my salary correct, and that's always—that—that's always intrigued me. Nobody has ever had the figure right.

Wallace: You—you know what? You have the opportunity at this moment before forty or fifty million people to straighten us all out.

Carson: What do you make a week?

Wallace: I'd be ashamed to tell you. (Carson laughs.) But no one's ever gotten your salary right?

Carson: No.

Wallace: It's a lot more, what you're saying?

Carson: I didn't—I'm not going to say anything.

Wallace: No, I know you're not going to say anything, but it's a lot more than anyone has ever said. I've read 2.7 million. Well, I add a million to that. And it's a—and it's more than that.

Carson: Who said that?

Wallace: I know. And— (Carson laughs). You laugh, but I know. Why are you so sensitive about being asked about how much money you make?

Carson: Because I was raised in the Midwest, where it was considered impolite to ask somebody how much they made or how much—

Wallace: But nobody ever made five million dollars a year in the Midwest.

Carson: —or how—what—when is—when did it get there? I was taught that it was impolite to ask somebody what they paid for a car or a suit; or if you walked into somebody's home, it would never occur to somebody to say, "What did you pay for this house?" And yet somebody asked me that at a party a couple of weeks ago.

Wallace: Really?

Carson: He said, "What did you pay for your house?" And I said, "It's none of your damn business." Which it wasn't.

This exchange on "60 Minutes" reflects the bare-all society in which we now live, where the press, government, and corporations intrude on every aspect of our lives. Nothing is too sacred to be discussed openly in front of millions of Americans, whether it be the intimate details of a divorce, a financial scandal, a sexual affair, or a family tragedy.

Robert Ellis Smith knows. He's the editor and publisher of Privacy Journal (Box 8844, Washington, DC 20003), a fascinating newsletter detailing the ongoing threats to privacy. He's put together a book that will open your eyes to how federal agents, large corporations, and the press find out details of your personal and financial lives.

Did you know, for example, that your credit bureau files are available to practically any investigator? that your tax returns are open to other government agencies if properly requested? that any files held by your tax accountant or investment advisor have no client privilege in a court of law? that, armed with your social security number, a private eye can discover details of your bank account, credit records, and other closely guarded secrets? Smith provides surprising data on mailing lists, medical records, insurance files, employment records and, from a personal point of view, threats to telephone privacy, electronic surveillance, fingerprinting and lie detectors. Smith's Privacy is an encyclopedia of vast information on the privacy issue.

You can stop the snoopers, however difficult the task may be. Like Johnny Carson, refuse to tell strangers your income or how much you paid for your car or house. Concentrate on private investments—gold, silver, bearer bonds, diamonds, collectibles. Don't display your wealth. Deal with reputable companies that will insure your privacy. (Aetna Life & Casualty, for example, just started a campaign to increase privacy in your insurance records.) Smith lists dozens of ways to reduce your profile and become once again a private individual. He tells you how to get off a mailing list, how to correct your credit bureau reports, etc.

In sum, Smith's Privacy is your key to privacy—buy it at the bookstore, and pay in cash.