Even with a permanent Patriot Act and increased government monitoring after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there is a more immediate group monitoring our daily lives: corporations.
Using the Internet and other information-gathering systems, corporations routinely buy and sell spending and demographic information to make money and help find the right consumers faster, a privacy panel said Wednesday night.
"Almost everything about us is out of our control, in the hands of third parties," Kansas University journalism professor Ted Frederickson said during the discussion.
The panel, organized by the social issues discussion group Preview Forum, set out to address the issue of privacy and security in communities, and it quickly landed on the topic of corporate monitoring. Companies set up databases of consumer lives, selling the information to politicians to better solicit votes. And companies use bar-code scanners to solicit future sales according to what people buy today.
All of that, the panel said, can result in a lack of personal identity, a world where companies view people as numbers, rather than individuals with diverse tastes and lives.
"Companies and governments should treat us with the utmost respect and care," KU sociology professor Bill Staples said.
Staples, who has published books on privacy and monitoring, said that information gathering equated to a "quiet revolution," where people may have concerns about it but rarely know where to turn because the invasions come from so many sources.
It becomes easier when consumers shop and search Web sites on the Internet, Frederickson said. "Cookies," or traceable lists of where people travel on the Internet, give companies a fingerprint to track habits.
Then, companies will often share that information with a variety of other companies looking to bag a quick customer without having to search through a broad base of people.
The government rarely uses information this efficiently, Staples said.
"But when there's a market incentive, you can't beat it," he said.
Kissan Joseph, a KU economics professor, said that when companies use data collection systems like cookies to find the right consumers, the consumers themselves may reap the benefits.
"There's an upside potential," Joseph said. When companies cut down on the time and money it takes to market their product, the savings can trickle back down to the customers.
Staples said that although that might be true, there was still something intrinsically wrong with corporations baiting people into handing out their personal information, something that the government, even under the Patriot Act, rarely does.
"It's seduction instead of a jack-boot on the neck," Staples said. "It's oddly more insidious."