Individuals and consumers derive great benefits from making personal information
public. It is a mistake to assume that personal information should necessarily
be kept private. A few small examples will illustrate this.
Our names, addresses, and telephone numbers are personal,
but few of us keep them private. They are personal in the sense that they
are about us, but they exist so they can be given out and used by others
to contact or serve us. Most of us want people to know where to visit us,
send us mail, or bring emergency medical care when we need it. What we do inside
our homes with the blinds drawn, on the other hand, is personal, but also
something tasteful people keep private.
Information about what we have purchased in traditional
retail stores is personal — again, in the sense that it is something about
us — but this information has typically not been private. Shopping in a
store requires you to show your purchases to a stranger — a store clerk
— in full view of other shoppers. It may be said that part of forming a
contract to purchase something involves identifying yourself and your purchases
by presenting both to a clerk. (Imagine buying something at a store without
doing this!) There is an enormous benefit to revealing ourselves and our
purchases to others.
Of course, we do not have to tell anyone what or whom
a purchase is for, and we can avoid sharing our names by paying cash. These
pieces of personal information can be kept private at our option.
With the advent of catalog sales and e-commerce, our information
sharing alternatives have increased. No longer do we have to appear in
a public place to personally show goods and present money to a stranger.
To engage in remote commerce, though, we have to share our names and addresses
with the retailer. This allows them to deliver things to us. The growth
of remote commerce has created new choices about what kind of personal
information we reveal and to whom we reveal it when we purchase things.
In any transaction like this, however, we get a benefit by sharing some
information about ourselves.
We think about this rarely in our daily lives because most transactions come
with understandings about what is to be kept private, and
how information can and cannot be used. These understandings
are backed up by the incentives businesses face and by the
common law privacy
torts Warren, Brandeis, and Prosser wrote about.