Printed on: December 03, 2012

Idaho Press Tribune: ITD should give you a say

In today's Information Age, most of us are probably aware - at least to some extent - that companies are selling data about us to other companies. What kind of books we're buying, what kind of movies we're renting, which breed of dog we own, the kind of restaurants we eat at.

Many free email providers automatically scan the texts of your emails for key words so they can send you advertisements tailor made to those words.

Like it or not, that's the world we live in. Information is a valuable commodity. Companies pay billions of dollars for it.

Businesses must make money to exist, and in many cases, we have a choice of whether to trade with them. Many of us have resigned ourselves that, when we voluntarily enter a business transaction with a company, they will share some of our buying information with other companies.

Those of us who take the time to read the fine print in our business dealings can see the exact nature of what kind of information is - and isn't - made available to others.

When we go through the legal system - court case, traffic ticket - a file is kept and made available for public consumption. Some of that can be accessed online, some of it has to be requested via a hard-copy public record form, but it is available.

That's fine. Such information should be available to the public.

That's how the press keeps you informed.

However, when government agencies sell your information to companies, that's another matter entirely.

The Idaho Transportation Department makes more than $5.4 million a year selling motor vehicle records and other personal information to companies.

It's reasonable for ITD to share information with courts and law-enforcement agencies. It's also reasonable to give contact information to auto manufacturers in the event of a vehicle recall.

Those are public safety or legal issues.

But government agencies shouldn't be able to sell your information to private companies for marketing reasons - to see what your vehicle-buying patterns are so they can try to hawk you a new Explorer - without your full knowledge and consent.

ITD doesn't formally notify customers that their information is being sold, and doesn't have to because the companies buying the information have legal exemptions.

That shouldn't matter. Just because they don't have to doesn't mean they shouldn't. There is a system that's supposed to filter out companies which use the information improperly, but it's cumbersome and not always effective. Besides, the impetus shouldn't be on you to report problems with the usage of your information. It should be on ITD to get your permission first.

It's good that ITD is finding creative ways to generate needed revenue without begging for more tax dollars. But you place a level of trust in public government agencies to be responsible with your sensitive personal information, and you deserve a say in how they use it.