Information Ownership

A few days ago, I opened my mailbox to find the most terrifying thing ever. My heart sunk before jumping into overdrive as I pulled out the envelope and read the return address – “Department of the Treasury – Internal Revenue Service.”

Well fuck.

It had been addressed to my old Eugene address, which the USPS had helpfully forwarded to me. As my mind quickly raced through the possible reasons that the IRS was contacting me, I considered this fact and knew that the only reason the IRS would have my previous Eugene address was from my last year’s tax forms. So I assumed that the letter had something to do with those. And since it was highly unlikely that they were mailing me a check for over-payment or something like that, the only plausible outcome I envisioned was that I had screwed something up on my taxes and now owed the government money. That’s always a fun position to be in, right?

I know that the IRS will never cold call you, and that all correspondences are initiated via mail, so seeing the official mailing information was certainly enough to scare the living crap out of me. So anticipating the worst-case scenario, I opened the letter…

…and found absolutely nothing! Well, nothing as drastic as I had been fearing, anyway.

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Turns out, it was just a simple notification that the IRS had sent my information over to the Department of Education. I had recently filled out some forms about my student loans, and as part of those was able to transfer a lot of my financial details directly from the IRS. This letter was just to alert me to the fact that this information had been shared, ostensibly to keep me informed if I had not initiated that data transfer myself.

At first, I was pretty irritated by the whole thing. The government was sharing some of my information with another part of the government. Why make a huge fuss over it all?

But the more I think about it, I realize that this is actually a really responsible and ethical way to deal with the treatment of personal information. The information being shared between the two agencies is highly personal and private details, and I do appreciate being more informed of how that information is being used. And now I have a paper record of where my information has gone.

This is the complete opposite of how I’m used to my personal information being used. We hand over so many details of our lives to social media, business surveys, and other companies. And once they have our information, there’s really no good way to know exactly how it is being used. It’s really inevitable that my information is being bounced around from company to company, sold to whoever wants to sell to the market of 18-24 year old males next. And I think I’ve kind of just accepted this reality.

So when the IRS actually sent me a letter notifying me about a single instance that my information was shared, it was wholly unexpected. But this is how personal information should be handled, and how it should be valued.

I’m not really sure how we “solve” this problem, or if it is even possible to do so. But this new age of the “Data Industrial Complex,” I’m sure it’s something I’ll continue to grapple with and try to understand.

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