New Threat to Your Privacy: You


I'd never expect to disagree with a blog post titled "IRS Privacy Nightmare," but The Nation has made it happen. Here's the new IRS rule that's got Peter Rothberg all riled up:

Here's how the new rules would work: when you visit your accountant or a tax-preparation firm like H&R Block, your tax preparer would ask you to sign a form authorizing them to release your information at their discretion. Once you sign that form, your tax preparer has permission to sell or share the information contained in your tax filings.

Cower before America's new Orwellian accounting juggernaut, citizen. Now, people will be able to share your private information, and all they need is your permission. If we don't stop this now, sooner or later it will even be legal for people to broadcast the details of their personal lives on the Internet. But it gets worse:

[N]othing in the IRS rules would prohibit tax preparers from offering incentives in exchange for privacy–say, a ten percent discount on accountant fees and a free clock in return for a signature could sound very appealing.

Bad enough to spread people's information around based on nothing more than consent, but to give them free stuff for it? Is nothing sacred?

NEXT: U.S.A.! Number One!

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  1. All Hail Sarcasm!!!!!

  2. A fine print form forming a trap for the unwary? Customers systematically tricked into acting against their own best interests? Sounds like a job for . . .

  3. The obvious solution, CDR Man, is to require a minimum typeface point size – consumers are obviously more likely to ready three pages of 12-point type than they are one page of 8-point.

  4. Some of it also should relate to getting rid of requirements to initial things that aren’t as important.

    Sometimes when ppl who aren’t superheroes try to implement informed consent, even in the most bona of fides, they just end up requiring initialing on so much that nobody has the time to read what they are consenting to. This particular form seems like one of the more important permissions and should not be buried in a sea of initials relating to inconsequential issues. sometimes ya gotta pare back your regs to make the important ones meaningful.

  5. Dave, I work for a title insurer – you want to talk about documents that get signed and not read? Preaching to the choir, CDR Man.

    But how do you provide extensive services which all require acknowledgement by the client without requiring, for liability purposes if none else, that they sign or initial each doc? Whether or not they choose to read each page, their seal shows that they were provided opportunity to do so.

  6. Dave, I work for a title insurer – you want to talk about documents that get signed and not read? Preaching to the choir, CDR Man.

    I hear that. Actually when I mentioned the “sea of initials” I was thinking much more about my experiences with title insurance than my experiences with my tax guy.

    But how do you provide extensive services which all require acknowledgement by the client without requiring, for liability purposes if none else, that they sign or initial each doc? Whether or not they choose to read each page, their seal shows that they were provided opportunity to do so.

    No simple answer. One technique is government regulation: that is, have the government take away causes of action that have become disused such that the associated initials are practically meaningless, but carried forward based on what amounts to legal tradition. Of course the risk here is that Title Insurors will hire T. to lobby for the bill and there will be no liability against title insurors all together. that wouldn’t be right either.

    Another technique is to set priorities using font size, white space, cooling period and/or separate form requirements. I think this is already done somewhat.

    I could go on in this vein, but want to switch gears to explain why I am posting on this boring subject at all:

    I see Customer Disclosure Requirements as much more salutary than just about any other type of government regulation. i see the disclosure requirements as an adjunct of contract law, which, as Adam Smith realized, is a neccessary precondition of capitalism. Disclosure requirements do not limit a anybody’s freedom of contract, but they do insure that the contract is the meeting of the minds that Adam Smith found so central to good commerce. Well thought out disclosure requirements insure not only that the minds meet, but also that the customer is truly bringing along his mind when he enters a dear transaction fraught with potential consequences. It also prevents te person who writres the contract from honing his deceptive craft too much.

    my perception is that here at HnR, CDRs get lumped in with things like zoning requirements or FDA testing. CDR is a way different thing, despite the fact that it is called “regulation.”

  7. Cool, I could use a new clock.

  8. While we are discussing consent:

    This is only tangentially related to the topic of consent at hand but I’m curious about people’s thoughts about the concept of identured servitude.

    In so far as it represents simply a contractual labor agreement between two parties, would it really be that bad? Now, I know in the past being treated like crap was an issue but that could, in theory, be an issue with any job. I suppose a contract that specifies the acceptable levels of treatment could easily have a clause that contract abrogation if those levels are exceeded.

    Not necessarily saying I want a return of indentured servitude (to be honest I’m very Libertarian leaning but no where as near ideologically pure or what have you as many people on this site), just this post about consent made me start thinking about this again.

  9. Well thought out disclosure requirements insure not only that the minds meet, but also that the customer is truly bringing along his mind when he enters a dear transaction fraught with potential consequences.

    Since we’re using my field as an example, let me just point out that they should “ensure”, not “insure”, a meeting of the minds – but part of the reason for disclosure is the knowledge that the customer may not bother to read – or necessarily understand – the verbiage put before them, even though it has been crafted in such a way to make it as explicit as possible. A lender is aware that its customers are not going to read the adjustable rate rider to their mortgage – but if they initial it, then it’s clear that the notary witnessing the transaction didn’t withold the information from them (and responsibility for reading and comprehending the terms is placed on the customer).

    In that vein, the H&R Block form allowing disclosure of personal information is only in danger of being “buried in a sea of inconsequential issues” if the onus doesn’t remain on the customer to read the stuff he or she is signing.

    I think we may be arguing the same point, so I’m going to go back to reading stuff that people signed and didn’t themselves read. 🙂

  10. This is easy enough to solve. If you value anything at all in life, read everythang and don’t sign nuthin’.
    I know it takes a bit of time and time is money, but I am happy to waste sombody’s time and money while I read every bit of a contract, wiaver, application, etc.


    Good point about the fact that having everybody read the initialled provision is not always the point. In many cases, it is enough to require that a provision be read by some people. I don’t think there are always hard and fast rules about what a contracting party will dare to put in a contract, there is probably an informal sliding scale that depends on things like how outrageous the provision is, whether it is separately initialled, whether it is likely to benefit the contract drafting party in reality (or just theory), etc, etc.

    If the provision was an indentured servitude one, then they should probably make you sign one thousand times in your own blood while submerged to the waist in a vat of ringworms. If it is something like permission to sell your financial info, then a 12 point dedicated form with full signature ought to do it.

    Side to Jeremy: I have asked about the indentured servitude at least twice here in the past year. They don’t answer, but my guess is that it gets some of the younger ones thinkin’.

  12. Tax returns and financial information being openly available for a song?

    I know how to solve that problem.

    Abolish the IRS.

  13. Indentured servitude — this is one of about five really tough issues that libertarianism has to chew on some more.

    Can you voluntarily sign way your freedom? Isn’t this your right? I’ve seen libertarian writers argue yes, and I’ve seen others say no on the grounds that your freedom is “inalienable” and therefore any contract purporting to give it away would be fraudulent.

    The other tough issues that, in my opinion, libertarianism has yet to formulate a satisfactory consensus for are:

    – How does previously unknowned property become legitimately owned?

    – Can ideas and information really be property? Are patents and copyright obsolete?

    – How do children gain the right to be taken care of by their parents? Usually libertarianism denies a right to be provided anything, except to be left alone and not have your stuff taken away.

    – Can animals have rights of any sort? Generally libertarians would say no, but it seems a culture where wanton and capricious cruelty to animals was ignored as a matter of taste somehow seems wrong.

  14. Steve,

    Can you give me an example of what you mean by previously unknown property? I’m not quite clear what you mean there.

  15. Oh, n/m. I just realized it was a typo. 🙂

  16. I think he means unowned. One example would be the moon. Another example would be the estate of a person who dies without heirs and without any state for the property to escheat to.

    These are some theoretical examples.

    More practically, the government could decide to propertize clean air at some point. The question here is how the previously unowned air could be fairly distributed. Clarification: I am not talking about how the credits or vouchers or whatever would work: I am talking about the question of who gets how many credits in the first instance. the standard answer is that each person would get what share the government sees fit to give, but the libertarian answer would probably be different, and it is possible that libertarians would say that there are fair ways and unfair ways to distribute the newly-owned air.

  17. If Total Recall taught me anything, it taught me that Ronny Cox is the one who will get to decide who gets clean air.

  18. You can also see a little bit of the “unowned property” problem in the HnR post about squatters that they did this afternoon.

  19. Choices:

    1: H&R Block + My Informatoin Privacy = $59.95;

    2: H&R B w/Information Release Signature = $49.95;

    3: Intuit’s Turbo Tax software = $39.95 (or more w/State Forms) + 2 – 12 Hours personal time completing my own taxes.

    Not having to give a 3rd party my personal information when I don’t want to = PRICELESS

  20. While a release form sounds like a reasonable roadblock to forcing people into consenting to release of their tax information, I might also remind people that plenty of companies have already learned how to gain voluntary consent quite easily.

    The grocery stores and drug chains wanted to tie purchase and spending information directly to individual consumer many years ago – so what did THEY do?

    They used discount cards to give perceived cost savings in return for personal consent (why do you think they MUST have your personal information to give you a card?).

    Of course they also raised prices slighly for “non discount card holders” and allowed the discount card holders to purchase at basically the traditional price..while consenting to their policies at the same time..pretty smart eh?

    So why wouldn’t the large tax preparation groups use a similar concept?

  21. Speaking of privacy – I thought I had it tough when I was growing – what with my parents always snooping around and such..but as of today, parents can simply use their kids cell phone as a “tracking device”..yikes!

    Cellular Leash Lets Parents Track Kids

    ..of course, such technology is only “for the children..god bless em” and I’m sure this technology would never be used for nefarious purposes…

    ..then again – I can only wonder how many significant others may suddenly find a NEW CELL PHONE! in their stocking come Christmas (and I even bet the loving gifter will be willing to handle managing the account as well)…

    ..kind of brings new meaning to the term “babe”

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