During a week of attempting to cloak every aspect of daily life, our
correspondent found that in an information age, leaving no trace is
nearly impossible.

In 2006, David Holtzman decided to do an experiment. Holtzman, a
security consultant and former intelligence analyst, was working on a
book about privacy, and he wanted to see how much he could find out
about himself from sources available to any tenacious stalker. So he
did background checks. He pulled his credit file. He looked at
Amazon.com transactions and his credit-card and telephone bills. He got
his DNA analyzed and kept a log of all the people he called and
e-mailed, along with the Web sites he visited. When he put the
information together, he was able to discover so much about
himself—from detailed financial information to the fact that he was
circumcised—that his publisher, concerned about his privacy, didn’t let
him include it all in the book.

I’m no intelligence analyst, but stories like Holtzman’s freak me
out. So do statistics like this one: Last year, 127 million sensitive
electronic and paper records (those containing Social Security numbers
and the like) were hacked or lost—a nearly 650 percent increase in data
breaches from the previous year. Also last year, news broke that
hackers had stolen somewhere between 45 million and 94 million credit-
and debit-card numbers from the databases of the retail company TJX, in
one of the biggest data breaches in history. Last November, the British
government admitted losing computer discs containing personal data for
25 million people, which is almost half the country’s population.
Meanwhile, some privacy advocates worry that the looming merger between
Google and the Internet ad company DoubleClick presages an era in which
corporations regularly eavesdrop on our e-mail and phone calls so they
can personalize ads with creepy precision. Facebook’s ill-fated Beacon
feature, which notifies users when their friends buy things from
Facebook affiliates, shows that in the information age, even our
shopping habits are fit for public broadcast. Facebook made Beacon an
opt-in service after outraged users demanded it do so, but the company
didn’t drop it completely.

Then we have Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of National
Intelligence, who proclaimed in a speech last October that “protecting
anonymity isn’t a fight that can be won.” Privacy-minded people have
long warned of a world in which an individual’s every action leaves a
trace, in which corporations and governments can peer at will into your
life with a few keystrokes on a computer. Now one of the people in
charge of information-gathering for the U.S. government says,
essentially, that such a world has arrived.

So when this magazine suggested I try my own privacy experiment, I
eagerly agreed. We decided that I would spend a week trying to be as
anonymous as possible while still living a normal life. I would attempt
what many believe is now impossible: to hide in plain sight.

A Gallup poll of approximately 1,000 Americans taken in February
1999 found that 70 percent of them believed that the Constitution
“guarantees citizens the right to privacy.” Wrong. The Constitution
doesn’t even contain the word. And in a fully wired world, that’s an
unnerving fact.

A number of amendments protect privacy implicitly, as do certain
state and federal laws, the most significant of which is the Privacy
Act of 1974, which prohibits disclosure of some federal records that
contain information about individuals.
Unfortunately, the law is full of exceptions. As Beth Givens, founder
and director of the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, put it, the
Privacy Act has “so many limitations that it can barely be called a
privacy act with a straight face.”

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