The death of Richard J. Cotter Jr., a pillar of the Boston community who was once assistant state attorney general for Massachusetts, shocked many who knew him. Not because the 81-year-old lawyer passed away, but because his will turned more than $650,000 over to white supremacists and anti-Semites.
Although I find Cotter's personal politics supremely loathsome, the fact that few knew of his repugnant worldview is good news for all of us.
Cotter was able to keep his personal perspective personal. But in the very near future, new technologies might make such privacy difficult, if not impossible.
A group called the Customer Profile Exchange--made up of a hundred or so companies in the business of collecting information about consumers--has developed a new way of allowing the computer systems operated by disparate businesses to easily share all the information generated by consumers as they go about their daily lives.
Big business says the effort is all about being able to better serve the customer. Using all the information about what I eat, wear, watch, drive, bathe with, sleep on, walk in and buy pet food for will let the operators of these databases build a precisely accurate picture of my hopes and dreams, to say nothing of my afflictions and predilections.
Simply put, they're saying if they know a bit more about me, I'll never have to sit through another feminine hygiene commercial again. My magazines will have ads for only stuff I care about, based on my purchasing history.
Combined with technologies such as digital cable television--marketed as a way to deliver more channels to consumers, but which also conveniently lets the cable company track precisely what you watch and for how long--it sounds like we're about to enter a golden age for consumers. Direct marketers will abandon their sleazy ways, once they know everything there is to know about me.
These guys don't make money by not showing advertisements to people. They make money by demonstrating to prospective advertisers that they'd be crazy if they failed to show me feminine hygiene commercials. After all, almost everybody has a mother.
What does this have to do with the late Herr Cotter?
Well, the raft of information about individuals that the Customer Profile Exchange hopes to create for each of us means that it's going to be harder to keep private thoughts private.
In the course of living his double life, Cotter might have hoisted a few brewskies with some boys from Brazil, purchased a couple of books with stomach-churning titles and maybe even ordered a big, white pointed hood or two through the mail. It's a sure thing he read a lot of strange newspaper articles and had an unusual interest in certain television news broadcasts, such as the trial of Adolf Eichman in 1961.
Because Cotter lived in a time when records of such transactions, if they existed at all, resided in discrete accounts maintained by companies scattered throughout the world, his secret life remained a secret.
But once all such information is collected, collated, analyzed and stored in one tidy little file, it's only a matter of time before employers, friends and family hear about it. What, you think those marketing guys don't gossip?
Now, I'll grant you that on a certain level this is not a bad thing. People like Cotter deserve to be shunned.
But living in that kind of world, a world in which we can identify people such as Cotter and inflict whatever stinging rebuke we deem appropriate doesn't just put the bad guys on the hot seat.
Would you investigate AIDS treatments if you thought people would know? How about birth control?
How comfortable would you be researching a candidate's positions in this privacy-free utopia the marketers are bent on creating for us?
The fact is we must suffer fools such as Cotter to guarantee the ability of everybody else to practice, explore or research ideas. Otherwise, certain people--such as a boss, family member or the cop you drive past every morning--might take the opportunity to inflict retribution.
If you think this is just a bit of paranoid ranting, remember that you're reading a story that, on first glance, looks to be about crypto-Nazis. What if everybody knew you read stuff like this?
Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist.
* Dave Wilson answers reader questions in Tech Q&A. T8