Social, Ethical, Moral & Legal Issues
To understand how american culture has been transformed over the last decade through the introduction of new technologies, it is essential to examine the role of individual privacy. Many will argue that the globalization buzzwords of the past few years have spawned directly out of the ability of people to interact virtually with each other in ways which are faster, more efficient, and more realistic than ever before: satellite transmissions, videoconferencing, and global cellular/paging services are now standard vernacular. With these capabilities have also come the ability to collect, extract, transport, and use large quantities of information for whatever reasons the data-holder may deem appropriate. This has caused a furor amongst people who understand the immense implications which are involved. Why?
While these are only some of the concerns relating to the entire privacy issue, they provide a good foundation for delving the topic deeper.
Members of both sides of the privacy debate generally agree that the expanding capabilities of technology and the increased amount of detail being used to store information on multi-giga and tera-byte databases are together causing citizens to lose control of what information they want to keep in their own private domain. Interpretation differs on how good or bad this is for the general public. Supporters of the increased use of databases to mine and spread individual data argue that this type of detailed availability of information is returning society to a social scenario of closely knit communities where citizens know and participate in each others business. This seems rather ludicrous when one learns that in actuality this data is used and distributed from far off locations to a select number of large corporations who have the necessary tools (hardware, software, labor) to profitably use and understand this information. In any event, the argument for social amelioration through data collection remains tenuous at best since the terms and methods of how the data are collected are questionable.
Examples of data being collected and used in the private sector are more than abundant. It is ironic to note (or is it?) that the government engages in these activities openly and without much attraction. For example, the state of Wisconsin has developed a large and highly efficient network of database interactions through its DMV (Division of Motor Vehicles) so that a person's license can now be suspended for refusal to pay fines and tickets, failure to pay library fees, shovel the sidewalk or even prune trees which overhang a neighbor's property!
It seems that the biggest problem in this arena is the lack of coordination amongst policy makers at the local, state and national levels. While the Wisconsin DMV has been busy collecting and using various personal data without any clear permission from the people whom the data concerns, the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) came up with privacy protection guidelines in 1973 - at the dawn of the digital age. These were:
(Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1973)
1. The enforcement of these laws present a real problem. With the amount of personal data that is being used, traded and analyzed, it is often difficult to define concrete violations and individual violators. Often it is large and powerful entities which use these data, and they are well versed in the evading rules by finding and creating any necessary loop holes.
2. Information, often critical in nature, is being supplied to and gathered from international sources. To provide guidelines to maintain a structure to this new form of "trade" the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) implemented a framework of eight basic principles:
If anything, these laws highlight the fact that statutes, policies and self-policing techniques do not work well. Although in theory these laws have been adopted by many countries including the United States, to what extent do companies inform consumers about the data they are collecting, and how are they ever held accountable to fair standards? Applications and answers to these dilemmas are just now beginning to develop in relation to current examples and cases. See Mike's write-up on legal issues for more indepth information.
A positive development in the nebulous area of privacy issues is the formation of grassroots consumer movements as an outcry against unscrupulous business and marketing techniques developed by corporate and governmental entities. An excellent example: in 1991, Lotus Development Corporation planned to release, for sale to the general public, an optical disc containing detailed data on the personal and shopping habits of 80 million american households. The data would provide valuable information to firms and thieves alike, and displeased with the possible outcomes, many people voiced their opinions. Despite incurring heavy losses, Lotus decided to drop the product due to much negative publicity. Recently, many organizations have been founded to monitor these types of "institutional irresponsibilities": among the largest and most famous are the EPIC Organization, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (initially founded and funded by Steve Wozniak -- co-founder of Apple, Mitch Kapor -- founder of the Lotus Development Corporation, John Perry Barlow, and a fourth anonymous member).
The outcome of privacy rights on the Net seems ambiguously unclear. What is clear, is that no one regulatory organization can be trusted to uphold the rights of all the NetCitizens who today participate in one form or another of electronic business or recreation. Adequately funded grassroots organizations offer an incisive way through which rights can be fought for and maintained. In addition, responsibility on the part of the government and corporations in the form of altruistic self-policing can also result in an environment of increased freedom through privacy.
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Technological Developments and Solutions
While there are no easy solutions on how to maintain one's privacy on the internet, some suggestions are: