Technology can bring great freedom. As the commercials of the 90’s promised, the Internet offers previously unheard of access to information from the comfort of one’s own home. Of course, the amount of information that computer networks allow to be freely-shared isn’t restricted to the card catalogs of major libraries, the lowest-possible prices or e-mails from friends and relatives. As technology has become cheaper, more powerful and nearly-ubiquitous new and, some have argued, disturbing developments have taken place at the nexus of powerful technology and personal privacy.
Credit card and debit card transactions can be traced, allowing access to one’s spending habits. On line, shielding such transactions from prying eyes has resulted in a world where ever-stronger forms of encryption are required to keep consumer’s financial information secure. Cameras are stationed nearly everywhere now, and some major cities are considering installing surveillance cameras in public places to monitor the streets, justifying it by alluding to the threat of terrorism. (Honan, ¶1) Where a case is being made for putting in surveillance cameras, one will usually find the crisis of security vs. privacy tossed aside perhaps more quickly than it should be, with the proponent arguing on the side of security. Whatever their motives, someone is probably watching you in most private establishments, of course.
This raises a new question for society: where is the line between the reasonable expectation of privacy and paranoia in the Information Age? It’s hard to find someone who likes the idea of their personal information and activities being collected by strangers. Interestingly, people almost universally express negativity toward any technology that monitors their actions but that negativity disappears when they’re asked if other people’s actions should be monitored. (Kleve, De Mulder & Van Noortwijk, 13). Everyone seems to detest motorists who run red lights but nearly everyone detests with equal venom the red light cameras designed to catch them committing the same traffic violation, so to speak.
The debate over security and privacy is hardly new. The nature of the debate, however, has changed in the past ten years. In a 1998 series of three articles, The Washington Post’s Robert O’Harrow Jr. wrote about concerns surrounding “data mining”. Data mining is an activity that really bloomed in the last ten years. Because of the amount of electronic records consumers generate, there exists an opportunity for marketers to narrow down their sales pitches to ever-more specific demographics by obtaining and “mining” that data for particular spending habits.
The sheer amount of data that is collected, the consumer’s unawareness of it and the ways in which this data can be sorted, searched and drilled into as well as the lack of control regrading how that data is eventually disseminated and that fact that protecting that data requires constant technological innovation presents challenges to citizens and law-enforcement alike. (Jerry Berman & Deirdre Mulligan, II. B.).
To add to the general anxiety, the US government, following the September 11 terrorist attacks upon New York, began collecting information from telecom companies, without a warrant, which they intended to mine for activity they considered suspect. The program has proved so controversial that, at present, Congress and the White House are unable to agree as to the boundaries of government where monitoring private conversations is concerned (Chaddock). Interestingly, a key point of contention in this debate has been the role of private companies.
When O’Harrow wrote about the potential for shady-activity surrounding how much of the information gathered by private data mining firms might be shared with the government, he was being quite prophetic. The telecom companies who cooperated with the government eavesdropping program now face the potential threat of billions of dollars in lawsuits for violating the rights of their clients (Chaddock, ¶7). Whether or not to pass legislation that would immunize private firms from being sued by their clients for their cooperation with the warantless eavesdropping program has brought the legislation to a halt.
Telecoms provide Internet access as well as telephone service. Where the Internet is concerned, perhaps expecting any privacy is unreasonable. As Burman and Mulligan put it: “Imagine walking through a mall where every store, unbeknownst to you, placed a sign on your back. The signs tell every other store you visit exactly where you have been, what you looked at, and what you purchased. Something very close to this is possible on the Internet.”
With the growing adoption of the Internet on the part of consumers–who are also, of course, citizens–over the past decade, it would seem that none of our habits, likes and dislikes or political dispositions are immune from being investigated by commercial or government interests.
It’s likely that as we become more connected by and dependent upon technology, we’ll have to become more accustomed, and skilled, at living in a world where we must assume that the details of nearly any day of our lives can be reconstructed by an interested party, and probably in great detail at that. Escaping society, or the ever-present electronic eyes thereof, is next to impossible.
Most anyone’s location can be revealed to someone with access to the right technology. Any purchase made with a credit or debit card becomes a part of a mosaic that can be used to interpret the nature and habits of its owner. It seems that using any technology that allows networking carries with it a mandatory trade-off where one’s privacy is concerned. Now that the government claims it doesn’t require warrants to gather and make use of this information, it’s hard to see any walls that might obstruct the view of those who would be spies.
In today’s world, privacy may not be dead, but it’s certainly not looking so healthy as it once did. The benefits of technology are many and most would agree that many of those benefits are marvelous. A GPS unit on a phone can alert emergency personnel to the location of someone who may not be able to do so themselves. It would be hard to reckon how many convenience store and bank hold ups may have been foiled by obviously placed security cameras.
For better or worse, we may have to adapt to an age where privacy is only to be had in the most remote wilderness. Unless, of course, you have a Global Positioning System in your car…or your cell phone, which you probably do whether you know it or not.
Chaddock, Gail Russel. “House Set to Let Warrantless Evesdropping Law Lapse”. The Christian Science Monitor
15, Feb, 2008. Retrieved From:
Honan, Edith. “Blomberg Defends City Surveillance Camera Plan”. Reuters. Retrieved From: <http://www.reuters.com/
Jerry Berman & Deirdre Mulligan. “Privacy in the Digital Age: Work in Progress” Nova Law Review, Volume 23, Number 2, Winter 1999. The Internet and Law. Retrieved From:
Kleve, Pieter, De Mulder Richard, V., Van Norrtwijk, Kees “Surveillance technology and law: the social impact” Int. J. Intercultural Information Management Vol 1 No 1. 2007
Retrieved From: <http://www.inderscience.com/storage/
O’Harrow, Robert Jr. “Are Data Firms Getting Too Personal?” The Washington Post Sunday, March 8, 1998; Page A1