A Private Story

(The Names Have Been Changed to Protect the Innocent)

He’d been an interesting but troubled friend in my youth. Tom had arrived at our fancy New England boarding school as a shy eighth grader interested in books, politics and music. He told us that his father, who was a 63-year-old New England gentleman farmer when he was born, had been T.S. Eliot’s roommate at Harvard. That story was beyond the construction abilities of 1960’s teenage braggadocio, so we believed him.

The Robin Report - PrivacyDuring the spring of our junior year his father died, and Tom lost it. He failed his final exams and was told he had to go to summer school to keep up with his class. He returned in the fall and promptly dropped out. In our yearbook we put a picture of Tom holding up a dime (the cost of phone call back then) and a seven-digit telephone number.

The late teenage years can be a very troubled time. Paired with the political and social climates of the era, Tom’s issues were not unique, just early. Ten percent of our boarding school graduating class that year was dead within a year of leaving school, mostly due to suicide. It was the goody-two-shoes guys that went first, having been shocked at how different the world was from what they’d been led to believe.

I graduated and promptly rented an apartment for the summer in Boston where I had a job with a publishing company on Beacon Hill. Halfway through the summer, by what circumstances I don’t recall, Tom turned up at my door with his pregnant girlfriend seeking a place to crash. They stayed in the apartment until my lease ran out in the end of August. She found a job, he didn’t. As I left for my freshman year in college, they moved into the back of Tom’s aging farm Jeep. I didn’t see them after that. That was 42 years ago.

I am not big on reunions. I went to my high school’s 20th and got asked by some sniveling Boston Brahmin where I “summered,” and realized I had not fit in back then, much less now. I did have a conversation with someone about Tom. Over the next 20 years I crossed paths with the same person three or four times. Each time we talked about him.

It got to be an itch that needed scratching. What did I know? Tom had the commonest of last names. His family came from southern Maine. Tom had been a junior, so I knew his age and approximate date of birth, and his father’s name and date of death. I presumed that Tom might still be a farmer, and given the era I knew him, that his farming might be artisanal and have quirk to it. There was an old phone number and picture. I hired an online detective agency to track him down.

It took them less than 10 days to get back to me with an address in small town in central Maine. I drove up unannounced and found him. I would not have recognized him, except for his movements. The way he stood up and put his hands in pockets was so familiar. He greeted me warmly, but there was something missing. He was living with a third wife, a young African woman, and they were growing organic vegetables for the African expat community. During the afternoon I spent with him, I sensed an unhappy marriage. His troubled past seemed to inflict his present and future, and this feeling was palpable. While he had not been exactly hiding, he was both pleased to be found by on old friend and more than a bit troubled by how easy it had been to find him.

We sit on the edge of a privacy revolution. The amount of publicly stored, easily accessible private data is breathtaking. Where you live, your voting record, who your neighbors are, how long you’ve lived where you live, and where you lived before, are all facts for sale. The ages of your children, what credit cards you carry,if you have a passport or library card, and any public petition you’ve ever signed; the list goes on and on. The current system assumes you have no criminal record, no arrest record, and no ill intent. If you do, then the details become more interesting.

Hire a modern detective agency and you don’t get Sam Spade; you get a desk jockey to collect a laundry list of available information. That pile has gotten bigger in an Internet era and the privacy issues we have with Google and Facebook are just the beginning. Are they public bulletin boards or privileged communication between consenting adults? Your funny picture or bad joke is someone else’s damning racist statement or misogynist rambling. Cracking into someone’s Facebook page is Hacking 101.

The big brother watching is not our government, but our marketing engines that churn away relentlessly. I shut down my landline after 25 years when more than 90% of my calls were from telemarketers. The do-not-call list was a complete myth. Send someone a piece of mail, and you have “the right” to call and follow up on that mailing. I got tired of insisting that if someone called me at home, I had the right to ask for and get his or her home number too.

My mailbox is stuffed with junk mail. I get a Lands’ End catalog seemingly every week. Based on the low bulk postage rates, no wonder the USPS is going bankrupt. All the duplicate mailings from the banks and credit card companies point to the lack of incentives to cull or manage their lists. Raising the rates for bulk mail might save both the post office and our landfills.

What is most frightening though, is the naïve trust we have given the Internet. We believe that the reviews we read and the personal recommendations we get are legitimate, and seldom question their authors. From Hotel.com to Amazon, the review process has been grossly misused if not thoroughly corrupted. At least magazines might do some fact checking.

We are headed for a privacy revolution. My geeky Internet pundit friends and my database marketing colleagues each, after their third martini, wonder when and how the shoe is going to drop. Is it the day America wakes up and finds that Facebook is completely uncool, or that Twitter is closed by some invasion of privacy suit where someone dies thanks to one of Spike Lee’s erroneous postings? If we shun the Protocols of Zion and harass Grove Press, or get Betty Page in front of a pornography commission, why assume that Mr. Zuckerberg can hide behind his billions?

There is no question that social media is here to stay and that online marketing and distribution are in our future. However, we have to assume that our government and courts are going to catch up. We are due for our generation’s Silent Spring and The Jungle. While our generation’s authors may not be writing books like Rachel Carson or Upton Sinclair, they may be making movies or rapping just as effectively.

Tom has not responded to my e-mails since our meeting. They could be unknowingly caught in a spam filter, or he’s telling me something.

Paco Underhill About Paco Underhill

Paco Underhill is the CEO and Founder of Envirosell, a behavioral research and consulting firm with 10 offices globally. Paco and Envirosell’s work has been featured in The New York Times, 20/20, National Public Radio, Smithsonian Magazine, Wall Street Journal, and other major news media. Paco is also the author of What Women Want, which was published in soft cover edition by Simon & Schuster in July 2011; Call of the Mall, a walking tour of the American shopping mall; and Why We Buy, the bestselling book about retail in history. In addition, Paco’s columns include regular features in major trade publication DDI Magazine, as well as Goldman Sachs’ in-house publication.