Privacy And Anonymity And Information Network Technologies

Privacy And Anonymity And Information Network Technologies Essay, Research Paper

We might assume that nothing new could be said about the issue of

privacy behond the basic notion that it is something secluded from the

inclusion of others, a virtue and right that every citizen of a

democratic society might possess. However, if that were actually the

case then we would not see our culture involved in debates about the

issues regarding privacy and anonymity as they relate to new information


The primary reason for such concerns is that information has become a

commodity in what we have come to know as the ‘information age’. With

the advent of new technologies; particularly that of the Internet this

information can be sold and exchanged quite easily. Before the use of

widespread computer technologies, our personal information had no real

value beyond its immediate transaction. When data and information was

provided by a citizen or consumer it had no secondary reuse. However,

due to advances in technology and data retrieval systems and

transactions, information has been given commercial value, especially

with regards to the issue of who owns and controls this information.

The information age has been a period that has allowed rights to privacy

to beocme seriously jeopardized by new information technologies.

Richard A. Spinello, has defined two distinct phases to the systematic

erosion of information privacy. The first he calls the ‘data base

phase’. The emergence of sophisticatd data base technology in the early

eighties made it possible to store and retrieve large amounts of

information efficiently and economically. During this time,

considerable amounts of personal data were transfered to computerized

records, which have been stored on record. Another implicator in the

invasion of privacy has been what is described as a ‘network phase’, in

which many individuals and organizations are relying heavily on digital

networks such as the Internet to help conduct their personal business.

The Internet specifically has facilitated the integration of different

databases and allowed data to become completely mobile, and easily

retreived by anyone. The use of such networks has expanded the

capability of elctronically pinpointing an individual or checking up of

personal backgrounds by following electronic trails of information.

There has become a realm where immediate on-line personal data is

available to anyone with the simplest personal computer system. The

implications on idividual privacy are great; we hve become completely

transparent to anyone who wants to take a little time to investigate

one’s background. What becomes a more important question is what types

of information can be deemed as public and private, and as this

information is stored who may legally claim access to it.

It has been consistenly maintained by members of our soicety that a

right to privacy an anonymity is a necessity, a basic natural right,

however in the information age, privacy is not a simple concept that can

be easily defined. Still, with respect to a general definition of

privacy the basic right to be ‘left alone’ is rather broad. Of most

conern in our current culture is the need to define and explore what is

deemed as ‘information privacy’ with direct connections to technological

advances. For Spinello, this is simply defined as “the right to exert

conrol over the fate of one’s personal information (name, address,

telephone number, financial background etc.), and the right to limit the

accessibility of information known about oneself”. In the context of

information technologies and specificallly the Internet; accessiblity

and use of such technologies can violate and inhibit our personal

privacy. Our private information may be violated because our personal

data may be acquired by individual without permission; when this occurs

according to Spinello, such a person may use it to excercise control

over a person’s activities. For example; companies with detailed

knowledge of an individual’s purchasing habits may subject them to

manipulative promotions, while a prospective employer may gather

sensitive information about a future employee’s medical histories,

financial records, etc.

As a result of this there becomes a new found concern; a developing

relationship between privacy and freedom in the new information age. It

becomes difficult to exercise guaranteed personal liberties when our

actions are on display and our intimate information can be accessed in

the public domain, furthermore they can become accessed without our

knowledge or consent. If our right to privacy continues to decrease in

the wake of technology’s continual progress so too will our basic

freedoms. Such concerns provide the basic notions behind already

legislated laws governing individual rights to privacy, however there

are not many specific laws protecting privacy and regultions that offer

protection of privacy that can be adequately applied to technological


Spinello argues that there has been a general failure on behalf of

North American policy makers to fashion sufficient protections for

privacy rights in the wake of technology’s expanding capablitites. He

asserts that privacy has been consistently eclipsed by other values such

as economic efficency and crime control as well as technological

progress. This becomes the central argument when discussing privacy,

anonymity and technolgoy in the wake of an emerging invasion of personal

rights and freedoms. Legislative policies have not focused on

indivduals and their previously defined rights, and has not separated

social intersts and technologies that can serve to both provide

productive functions in all societal institutions but also serve to

invade personal freedoms. This returns to Spinello’s argument that the

issue of privacy and technology gets continually redefined, as the idea

of privacy becomes subordinate to other worthy ideas such as economic

efficency, crime control, and governement productivity as a collective

good for all citizens.

What we have become to witness at the level of public opinion is a

desire for privacy and also maximum data and information as it deals

with new technolgoy. It seems that such digital developments have been

the price of advanced sytems of information and policy makers have used

its effeciencies to monitor and link institutions involved in data

collection. Privacy, is a collective value which we all share, as well

all citizens have similar levels of privacy in the eyes of government

institutions. We provide personal data consistently, and

legislative-information based relationships have always existed, they

are voluntary but also necessary for the well being of individuals and

the well being of society itself. However, our personal information as

it is embedded in network information systems is easily available; they

must be controlled at an institutional level as pesonal data is an

individual notion but becomes a social concern when paired with new


Although privacy is comparable to many social goods such as

technological advancement, it is much more complicated, as it is applied

with the diverse and complex uses of our personal data. This complexity

makes if difficult to acheive a sustainable uniform level of privacy for

all. Protection of our personal privacy on the Internet is an intricate

matter as it is necessary for social goods, but its invasion can affect

so many areas of our lives. Most citizens understand the assumption

that to participate in our social, economic and technological systems

they must relinquish some of their personal data, and they are willing

to acknowledge that many commercial and government organizations have a

legitimate need for that data, what is obviously objected to however, is

the secondary uses of that data without permission as it is residing

somewhere in cyberspace beyond their control. Furthermore,

participation in such technologies by their very function poses a

vulnerable situation for its users. As Spinello argues, “these misuses

of information should not be a necessary cost of participating in

society, and pariticpating in technologies that by their very nature

have implications on their privacy”.

In an economy that is now dependent on information dominated by

powerful corporate and government interests the value of privacy must

become a priority and be given the respect it deserves. The debate

about privacy and its focus on its significance as a public value as it

is compromised for the sake of technological value should be of utmost

importance as the need to legislate policies on network systems such as

the Internet continues. More importantly as information is continually

transmitted and transferred on such systems, most organizations that

possess such information regard it as their own private property after

it is collected. The key question that is again raised is who is given

rights to property in personal data, especially how it is transferred

and stored in new technological networks Just like other forms of

property, we see how information can have monetary value, as well as how

it can be produced, upgraded, shared and transferred to others. When we

see that personal data has an appreciable value and should be classified

as property, then it beocmes clear that there exists a powerful link

between the issues of property and privacy and how this should be

disseminated on networks such as the Internet.

For Spinello, a uniform level of privacy must be established, and the

common value of privacy must be balanced with other other social

objectives and how they relate to technological advances. Since privacy

is a common and public value it should be defined as the right of

society to require institutions and individuals connected to network

systems to use information in a manner that is more respectful of the

shared intersts in that information. Technology at this stage must be

able to distinguish between social interests and personal anonymity for

citizens, corporate needs versus personal identity, and corporate

mergers versus group privacy.

Privacy, of maximum concern with the infusion of high technology bonded

by network systems will sink back to being a debated and contested

issue, and recapture the thoughts and principles of basic ethics and

constitutional law as it had when it became a virtue in the first

place. Information technology is another classic case of advances and

breakthroughs that can be used for constructive or destructive

purposes. It is the terribly slow pace of policy makers and the

amazingly fast pace of information technology in American society that

has caused the greatest tensions and deserves the closest scrutiny.


Spinello, Richard A. (1998). Privacy Rights In The Information Economy.

Business Ethics Quarterly.


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