Consumer privacy is the right of the consumer to keep personal data private rather than public. This is a controversial issue in the 21st century, when technological advances have made it both profitable and common to conduct business of all kinds through computers and the Internet. Many countries have basic rules regarding consumer privacy, but it remains largely up to the consumer to ensure that data is shared with as much caution as possible.
For centuries, consumer privacy was minimal, as few economic systems relied on account and personal data. Up until the late 19th century, most dealings were through barter or cash systems, which involved minimal sharing of private information. Bankers, however, operated under strict privacy laws in order to retain the confidence and custom of their wealthy customers. Banking laws on privacy are some of the oldest sets of rules that adhere to a right of the consumer to some measure of privacy.
Modern technology, however, has lead to a revolution in identification and transaction numbers. The average consumer may possess a variety of private means of identification, including telephone numbers, government identification cards, driver's licenses, and bank cards, all of which use proprietary numbers and private details. Since it has become more common for people to be recognized and granted credit or purchase based on this identifying information, rather than a tangible substance such as cash or personal recognizance, the value of private information, and thus the importance of consumer privacy, has increased tremendously.
Many countries have laws that provide some measure of protection for private information. In many countries, for instance, it is illegal for anyone to wiretap a phone without a warrant to do so. Federal laws, such as the United States based Privacy Act of 1974 and the Canada-based Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, prevent government and government-regulated organizations from disclosing private data. These and similar laws also attempt to regulate the disclosure of data in the private sector, such as companies selling contact information to third party businesses.
Unfortunately, laws and regulations cannot always guarantee consumer privacy. Many national laws for privacy in fact require agencies to disclose their privacy policies, but cannot always regulate the policies themselves. To ensure a full understanding of what a company can and cannot do with private information, it is necessary for consumers to read the fine print of all privacy disclosures, and consult applicable laws if necessary.