Saturday, March 7, 2009

When a Privacy Guarantee Means You Give Yours Up

A colleague, on a professional listserve, reports that she was contacted by a hospital's development department after her daughter had been treated there.  "Hello Barbara," said the development caller (not real names).  This is Jonathan calling from ____ Hospital.  How are you tonight?  I'm calling because your 12 year old daughter, Laurie, was a patient here.  Is that correct?"  Jonathan went on to ask Barbara for a donation to the hospital.  

Barbara was appalled, and asked her colleagues whether this wasn't a violation of privacy laws.  Another colleague did some research and found this on the hospital's website:  "In the continuing effort to enhance _____ Hospital's mission of service, periodic communications and invitations to consider philanthropic support may be sent to patient families..."  This language must have been included in fine print on one of the required documents, probably the one that guarantees patient privacy.  

So a guarantee of patient privacy is actually a violation of it.  You think you're signing a privacy guarantee when you are actually giving up your privacy.

The linguist Geoff Nunberg, commenting on Terri Gross' "Fresh Air" program on NPR, highlighted a similar deceptive use of language when he said that most "guarantees" were actually "limitations of liability."  

This kind of misuse of language is actually a violation of trust.  And right now I am seeing violations of trust as being at the heart of many psychological problems in human relationships in our society.

Although the legal structure, pace of life, social decentralization, constant persuasion pressure from multiple sources, and technological sophistication of our culture bring it to a whole new level, the basic problem of violation of privacy is a very old one.  Idries Shah, in his "Caravan of Dreams," quotes a tradition of the Prophet Mohammed about this:  "Whoever invades people's privacy corrupts them."  

There's probably no more important psychological issue today than the reestablishment of public trust in institutions, and for that, institutions are going to have to become more trustworthy.  One of the chief changes that will require is the recognition of the importance of institutional honor in the relationships that institutions have with people at all levels; consumers, investors, workers, regulators.  

We have no trust in our institutions because they have no honor.  The hospital's treatment of Barbara is, in a word, dishonorable; not in that it asks patients for donations, but in that it slips the permission to do so into a document that purports to be a guarantee of their privacy rights.      

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