Reflections on Privacy in the Digital Age, Part 1

Onion News Network: Google Opt Out Feature Lets Users Protect Privacy by Moving to Remote Village
It’s privacy week in the course I teach. This is one of my favorite weeks every semester because privacy is such an ongoing and multifaceted area of our (digital) lives. New technologies have always brought about concerns of privacy. In 1890 Warren and Brandeis published an article in the Harvard Law Review advocating for greater privacy protection as a result of new technologies such as cameras.
“Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person… Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that “what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.” For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons; and the evil of invasion of privacy by the newspapers…” – Warren and Brandeis 
 As technologies have continued to evolve issues of privacy continue to surface. While many of us may feel we deserve more privacy protection (and I would agree), from a legal perspective the issues is actually quite complicated. In the US we are not granted a right to privacy – the Fourth Amendment protects us from “unreasonable searches and seizures” and throughout history this has come to be interpreted as the “right to be left alone”. But beyond that, the Constitution does not guarantee us a right to privacy and anytime the US government attempts to regulate the private sector things tend to get legally complicated.
SXSW Opening Remarks by danah boyd: Making Sense of Privacy & Publicity
Nonetheless, regardless of Constitutional protections (or lack thereof), we value privacy protection and continually argue new technologies invade our sense of privacy. Anyone who even remotely follows Facebook in the news is probably aware of the bad publicity they have received through the years as a result of privacy invasion and exposure. Ethnographer danah boyd has written and spoken extensively about definitions and conceptions of privacy and the various privacy faux pas Facebook has committed. (see for example “Facebook’s Privacy Trainwreck: Invasion, Exposure, and Drama“). As she and others have argued, private is not the opposite of public. We all willingly share private information on a daily basis which we do not intend to ever be public. The vulnerability that comes with sharing private information is the foundation of relationships –  but we share private information within particular contexts with individuals (and institutions) we trust. Privacy is ultimately about the ability to control the flow of information about oneself; it is about understanding the context in which that information is shared; and it is about trusting that individual or institution to ethically use our information.

As noted, new communication technologies are almost always accompanied by privacy concerns (and of course  privacy concerns also exist outside the realm of communication technologies). Yet, what is unique to concerns related to digital technologies, particularly the internet, is that we are less aware of the fact that our privacy has even been invaded. In the physical world we can observe who is listening to our conversations, taking our pictures, recording what we are saying, and easily identify who is asking for and collecting our personal information (and we can easily refuse to give out that information, such as when The Gap asks for you phone number). However, the architecture of the internet makes it possible for individuals and institutions to collect, observe, record, share, search, and distribute our personal information, locations, conversations, etc. without our explicit consent and often without our knowledge. Herein lies the challenge of privacy and digital technologies: do ISPs, cell phone providers, websites, etc. have the legal right to collect data about our behaviors and personal information and furthermore who should regulate and enforce the ethical use of this information? These are huge questions policymakers, lawyers, judges, researchers, journalists,etc. are dedicating their entire career to figure out.

(to be continued…)

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