Columns: Privacy

Forty years ago, two police detectives came to my office to question me about a murder. They did not flash any badges or provide any proof that they were actually police detectives.They both wore shabby suits and unpolished shoes. That was proof enough for me that they were what they claimed to be. One of them gave me a business card with his name and phone number. He was the older of the two and appeared to be drunk. He slurred his words and was clumsy. This could have been from a neurologic condition, but the smell of liquor on his breath pointed me to a more conventional explanation.

I met with them in the cluttered, windowless closet of a room that my secretary shared with another doctor’s secretary. There were two desks and 10 file cabinets, along with the two secretaries, filling the room. There was no room for additional chairs. I and the detectives stood. They wanted to know about a young man, recently found shot to death. I had already heard of the killing from the waitress at the diner where I ate every day. The victim’s uncle operated his loan-sharking business out of the diner and was there the day I heard the news. I offered my condolences, but the relative of the deceased appeared to be indifferent. He muttered something about, “These things happen,” and checked the tallies in his little black book. The waitress told me, “The dead kid was a jerk.”

The detectives knew who the murder victim was from past dealings with the dead man. The deceased had no identification on him, but he did have my business card in his pocket. My intoxicated interrogator wanted to know why the murdered man had my card on him.

Given the confidentiality of medical records, I was reluctant to tell the alleged detectives much of anything, but given that the man was dead and could not object to the revelation, I acknowledged that he had been treated by me. Business cards are inexpensive, even ones that say you are a detective, and so I gave cards with my name and phone number to all of my patients. If they called the number listed, they would be directed to leave a message or go to an emergency room. My secretary took frequent breaks.

The detectives told me that my patient had been shot 10 times. This excessive dose of bullets was the presumed cause of death, although I have dealt with people shot 10 times who survived. They wanted to know if the “vic” had any enemies. I could have asked how many bullets one gun could discharge and note that if it were less than 10 my dead patient had at least two enemies, but I avoided joking with policemen. I acted as if this was a reasonable question, and simply noted that I was unaware of his having any enemies.

This was all I could offer, but for no apparent reason, other than his having had Johnnie Walker for breakfast, the elder detective confided in me that they had numerous other sources of confidential information. They could get phone records, insurance records, travel information, family contacts, etc. With each slurred utterance, he revealed that nothing could be truly hidden. Even, or especially, in death, my patient had no privacy.

That was 40 years ago. That was before information harvesting became a multibillion dollar, international industry. That was long before I could use any of a dozen search engines to find out about Richard Lechtenberg from birth to death. Please note that the reports that I am dead and that I had been married to a woman with my mother’s name are wrong. The purveyors of this industry routinely assert that all of the information collected on me is from publicly available sources. That information is in the public domain without my knowing how it got there. Did I sign a waiver in microscopic print when I went on line to shop for a lamp? Is that why I am inundated with advertising for lamps when I go to the Internet?

As I review my life and alleged loves as reconstructed by the “techies” who apparently know more about me than I know about myself, I take cold comfort in the numerous errors I encounter. Nonetheless, the information is apparently sufficient to facilitate identity theft for the criminally inclined. This raises an obvious question: “How can any of this be legal?” I watch the television series “Law and Order” regularly and have learned that criminal facilitation is a felony [a bad crime]. Why are these data bankers of information that have enabled criminals to steal identities, fake transactions, and commit murders not guilty of criminal facilitation? Do they do background checks on the people to whom they are selling information to determine if the buyers are sane or sociopaths? Do they alert the person whose information they have just sold that Chester Molester received their current address and work schedule?

We are choking to death on data. To rent an apartment in New York, I had to allow the renting agent and the landlord access to piles of sensitive financial documents going back at least two years. Judging from the rental defaults in New York over the past year, this invasion of privacy provides little, if any, real protection against deadbeat tenants or business failures. What it does provide is food for fraud. 

Of course the ultimate irony is that our government safeguards the privacy of those who deny us privacy. We ask candidates for the presidency and vice presidency of the nation to please let us review their tax returns and other financial dealings to provide us some assurance that they are not receiving checks signed by Vladimir Putin. We politely ask, and if they refuse, we assure them that we understand. We, too, want to have privacy. If I were advising the president on international affairs and needed to appear uninfluenced by foreign governments, I would certainly want those payments from Turkey to be mine and Recep Erdogan’s little secret.   

Of course, there are laws that say I must disclose these foreign “gifts” and any such lobbying activities, but they rely heavily on an honor system. Unfortunately, an honor system fails if its participants are dishonest. I believe some of our elected officials are honest men and women, but if I must provide strangers with proof of my integrity and reliability to get control of a studio apartment for one year, should not a candidate seeking control of a city, state, or nation be obliged to submit to a similar review?

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.