Privacy in the Information Age
It is a fact that, in the Twenty-first Century, technological advancements are on another level as people have increased access to information like never before. With the touch of a button, an individual can obtain access to millions of sites that offer information regarding any subject imaginable. Nowadays, people do not need to rely on computers to obtain information, as it used to be in the past. With the invention of the mobile phone and related technologies like tablets, individuals can be on the move while reading information on their devices. Some of the most important inventions in the modern information age are related to social media. Social media users access many different social media platforms throughout the world, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and others. However, what is of concern to many users is the issue of personal privacy. Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to apologize to the platform’s users due to a discovery that a London-based company had obtained access to the personal information of more than fifty million users of the platform because of its open data-sharing policies. With these technological developments and information sharing, the privacy of individuals is at stake.
Privacy and Individual Rights
Generally, privacy can be seen as the personal condition of life that involves an individual being excluded from publicity. This concept results from the need for individuals to be given the right to their personal space, where they do not need to fear any intrusion from outsiders (Westin 431). For more than ninety years, the United States has been pursuing the passing of privacy laws with the aim of protecting citizens from breaches of the right to privacy. Consequently, privacy may be perceived as a natural right that creates the basis for a legal right. While the right to privacy is protected by private law, the overwhelming numbers of democratic states have enshrined the principles thereof in their constitutions and other supporting legislation. For instance, in the United States, the Privacy Act was passed in 1974; in South Africa, the Open Democracy Act was passed in 1996; and in England, the Data Protection Act is in place. In addition, in 1994, Australia embraced a privacy charter that has eighteen privacy principles that spell out the rights of individuals regarding individual privacy including the handling of data by the state (Westin 432). These protections are meant to ensure the safety of individual data.
Privacy is a pertinent right since it enables other rights, such as personal autonomy and freedom to exist in the society. Consequently, it is inevitable that privacy, personal dignity and freedom are intrinsically connected (Westin 439). Respecting an individual’s privacy entails appreciating the fact that a person has the right to freedom and considers such entity as an autonomous individual. Respecting an individual’s privacy is a prima facie responsibility, meaning that the right to privacy is not an absolute responsibility that cannot allow for exceptions. This can be clarified by two examples. First, law enforcement agencies may violate the privacy rights of an individual who is suspected of being a criminal by spying on his or her documentation/information or seizing them altogether (Westin 441). Second, government is allowed to gather personal and private data concerning citizens to ensure harmony, law and order, and matters of national interest.
Information Sharing and Privacy
Technological advancement has led to a phenomenon called greased data. Computerized information is greased and moves rapidly and easily to various destinations, which makes the retrieval of such data effortless. However, this leads to some genuine concerns regarding people’s privacy when such information is used inappropriately (Westin 443). Therefore, greased information moves very quickly and the spread of such information is impossible to reverse. For example, consider telephone numbers that for many decades have been available in phonebooks and offered by telephone operators that are currently contained on the internet in huge electronic phonebooks. In contrast, it is not easy to locate a conventional phonebook for a given geographical location. However, with the electronic phonebook, an individual in any part of the globe can access an individual’s telephone number, know his or her wife or husband and even where he or she lives without any problem (Westin 445). This may not be a breach of privacy per se, but it helps to demonstrate how information that was initially unavailable in the public domain can quickly change regarding its accessibility when it is transmitted via computer networks.
Likewise, technological advancements lead to greasing the information, which in turn makes the accessibility of such data easier to access, such that it can be used repeatedly. Computers contain a large memory or capacity for data storage, which is long lasting and accurate (Westin 449). On the other hand, people forget very quickly and in fact, most short-term memories do not proceed to long-term memory. For instance, if an individual goes to a supermarket and buys some products, no one at the supermarket would remember what he or she bought. However, a computer would remember that information accurately. It can remember what a customer bought previously and even stores the individual’s buying habits. While this process may not be a breach of privacy, it explains how the information is greased and is rendered easily accessible over a long time like never before. These two examples help illustrate how information obtained, for whatever purpose, may move quickly (Westin 451). In the modern computerized world, individuals leave behind electronic footprints all over the world and the information collected for one purpose, may be used in future for a different reason.
How Privacy is breached by the use of Technology
Despite technology having a substantial impact on the collection, storage, retrieval and dissemination of data, the main ethical concerns relate to the unauthorized access to and manipulation of information. Technology has furthermore led to a situation where many people are in a position to access information simultaneously. While it is easier for people to acquire the private information of individuals, it is also in contrast, possible to exclude people from accessing electronically stored information by creating security barriers, like the use of firewalls and password authentication (Shin 428). The effects of the use of modern technology on individuals’ privacy characterize itself in various ways.
First, phishing is a major technique whereby technology affects the privacy of individuals while they are online. This is a maneuver created by people who plan to steal the identity of an individual (Shin 430). The process involves hackers sending fake emails to the target individual, which may appear to originate from credible sources. Consequently, the attacker uses them to obtain personal and private information from the target person (Shin 433). The information obtained during this process may be used in various ways, some of which may be criminal, heinous, or against the society’s moral ideals. For instance, if the targeted individual becomes vulnerable and provides personal banking details and the hackers or criminals may use this information to steal money from his or her bank account.
Second, online criminal gangs may also use malware and spyware to obtain information regarding a specific targeted individual. Previously, hackers used to send viruses to personal computers via emails. However, with improvements in technology, they have gone a notch higher and currently, they create malicious websites (Shin 434). When an individual opens the website, his or her computer is infected by a computer virus that will enable the attacker to collect personal information from the target’s computer or device. Consequently, an individual’s privacy would have been intruded upon. The information collected by the attackers is detrimental to the target since they may use it in a manner that may affect the entire life of the victim (Shin 434). For instance, hackers may use the personal information collected from one’s device to solicit for funds from the unsuspecting friends of the victim. People would therefore be acceptable enough to send money to the attackers since they would believe that their family member, colleague, or friend is in trouble. By the time they realize what had happened, it would be too late and the damage would be done.
Third, hackers may obtain individual information from social media platforms. As much as such platforms are perceived to be harmless enough, they are a major threat to the privacy of people since most of them overshare information regarding their private lives. As such, all the people in their friends list, whether they know each other at a personal level or not can see everything, including everything other people post on their profile pages (Shin 434). It is common practice to see people nowadays mention everything that they do on social media platforms. It is even possible to see what an individual ate for supper, how his or her schedule was at work, how many kids he or she has, his or her wealth, how he or she dresses and much more. As a result, it is possible to gain detailed information on an individual, without ever meeting the person face-to-face. This makes it possible for malicious people to identify targets easily. Based on what they need from a victim, they can access the social media profile, status, posts and other elements to find the right kind of individual whom they can victimize to achieve their objective/s (Shin 434). Without social media, it would be essentially impossible to know who an individual is or what he or she does or likes.
Fourth, sharing of photos and video clips is a common threat to people’s privacy. Modern technology, including the tablets and mobile phones, take good photos and record high-quality videos and people share these videos and photos every single day on the internet (Shin 435). Most people probably think that such acts are harmless, since they believe such pictures and videos are non-revealing and more often than not, the problem with this is the fact that they are not as private as people may believe. Modern technology has also made it possible for an individual to identify another person’s exact location through using such pictures and videos. This is because the videos and photographs are geo-tagged, meaning that they redirect to the location of the individual who shared them (Shin 434). Consequently, the individual becomes vulnerable since he or she shares personal information with an unprecedented number of internet users.
Fifth, when an individual uses the Web, he or she leaves a browsing history. To many people, this phenomenon may not carry any weight; however, it contains loads of information (Shin 436). Browsing history shows others what an individual searches online, which means that they may be able to access personal information, including where the individual works, banks, goes to school and such things. Furthermore, most Websites have cookies that they use to collect personal information with the aim of determining what people may want to buy from their targeted advertising and they will then place relevant advertisements on people’s webpages (Shin 436). As a result, they obtain sensitive information from the cookies that they put on people’s computers to track information, which also enables them to have access to personal information.
Sixth, cloud computing is another huge threat to personal privacy since the responsible sites, such as email and instant messaging services, lack security features that are important in the protection of people’s privacy and confidential matters that people do not want others to see. For instance, if an individual has a password to another person’s email, he or she would have access to all information contained in the email inbox of the individual (Norberg, Horne, and Horne 101). This puts the individual whose account is accessed at risk since the intruder would find all the private and personal information regarding the person in the mail.
Seventh, electronic medical data has been compromised on occasion, leading to the violation of people’s privacy. It is true however that the federal government has made it a requirement that medical facilities should keep patients’ medical data private, but these stipulations do not cover programs, such as Google Health (Norberg, Horne, and Horne 105). Such programs have information relating to not only people’s health conditions, but also their personal information, such as family members, medical history, work and other issues that are private. This raises the risk of people’s information being accessed by other people, which may be used for sinister motives to the detriment of the patients and other people whose information may be contained in such programs. Further, many people nowadays use Public Wi-Fi, which risks offering personal information to the public. Wi-Fi is not as safe as most people assume and it does not keep individuals’ private information safe since it does not encrypt data, which makes it possible for hackers to gain access to people’s private data (Norberg, Horne, and Horne 106). Wi-Fi furthermore enables the inter-connectivity of various devices, which may enable some hackers to penetrate the devices of other people, leading to unauthorized access to their personal data.
Technology poses threats to people’s private lives through the invention of modern and sophisticated features. For instance, Facebook has become irresistible to many people since they are lured to join their colleagues, friends and family members. By July 2010, Facebook had more than a half a billion monthly users, meaning that one in every thirteen people across the globe uses it every month (Norberg, Horne, and Horne 107). However, the social media giant also has some features that divulge personal data to the public and in 2010, it began using the GPS functionality of mobile phones. This property of the site enables people to share their locations on it by checking into public places, which have led to an increased debate on the safety of individuals while online. The Facebook site has been under pressure to protect the privacy of its users. This has been necessitated by crimes committed via the medium, such as the murder of Ashleigh Hall by Chapman in 2010 (Norberg, Horne, and Horne 108). This highlights the gaps that an enemy may use to carry out malicious intent.
Furthermore, personal information may be grouped as minor data, including music preferences, confidential information, such as credit card numbers and behavioral data regarding people’s activities and connections. Rik Ferguson notes that, as much as such information may be seen as being trivial in isolation, from an attacker’s perspective, any data is good (Norberg, Horne, and Horne 111). He therefore advises people to monitor their online footprints via the use of online search engines. Another security expert, Balkam says that the internet has two major privacy challenges: damaging an individual’s reputation and physical safety (Norberg, Horne, and Horne 11). Reputational damage involves matters that may create a bad image concerning an individual after posting something online. For instance, if someone is drunk and posts a picture online, his or her boss may gain access to it. The boss may not be pleased with such a gesture and in some instances; the individual may end up losing his or her job. In addition, if colleagues see such a picture, they may disrespect the individual, burdening him or her with a sense of guilt or embarrassment. Regarding physical safety, location tools may lead to endangering the lives of people, such as women or children who may be targeted by rapists or stalkers. Further, burglary may become a concern when people broadcast the location of their houses and announce online that they are away from their homes (Norberg, Horne, and Horne 113). For example, in 2010, developers created a site called PleaseRobMe.com, which was used to create awareness regarding the effects of allowing the public to know one’s location.
Internet privacy is usually associated with people’s identity. Peggy Orenstein notes that people may be tempted to Tweet about a good moment on Twitter, but this may end up spoiling the moment. She adds that when an individual is online, the person seeks to craft his or her persona to be the way they deem fit and what the individual wants others to see, not necessarily who he or she is (Norberg, Horne, and Horne 115). As a result, technology presents people with a platform that they struggle with in presenting an identity to the world, yet they struggle to strike a balance between the profiles they share with colleagues, family, friends and reality.
Creating and Adjusting Policies for private Situations
As discussed previously, privacy is an important aspect in the lives of individuals. Violations of privacy put individuals at risk, whether physical or regarding their reputations. This necessitates that various entities must unite to come up with policies that can ensure the safety of private information (Joinson and Paine 237). For example, genetic testing is a good example that encompasses the use of information technology and violation of privacy. Without information technology, it would be impossible to carry out genetic testing, but at the same time, information technology in genetic testing poses a great threat to people’s privacy. Furthermore, it is true that improper disclosure of patient’s private data is a violation of their privacy, for instance, a lady who does not have breast cancer may decide to go for a test for the gene that causes the disease since some of her family members have the disease. After visiting a medical facility where she is tested, the result turns out to be positive (Joinson and Paine 237). To encourage other ladies to go for testing in future, the information is electronically stored. Consequently, most health care facilities including her healthcare insurance firm would have access to the patient’s information. As a result, such information may have dire consequences for her when she seeks health insurance coverage in future and could even affect her children in the future when they apply for employment and insurance, despite the fact that they have not been diagnosed with any disease. Therefore, formulation of privacy policies has to ensure that excess harm and risk is minimized. While medical records should be protected, this may not however be enough to protect the patients (Joinson and Paine 239). Therefore, new legal policies are be necessary, which include the accompanying regulations, to protect patients from discrimination based on genetic testing.
One of the ideologies that can guide the creation of privacy policies is the Publicity Principle. People can learn to protect their privacy if they are aware of the boundaries of privacy and under what circumstances information may be shared and with whom. For instance, if one’s employer reads one’s emails, if an individual wants to apply for a new job, he or she cannot use the work email to do so (Joinson and Paine 240). This principle would promote informed consent in the manner in which data is shared and encourages rational decision-making.
After policies have been created and made known to various stakeholders, some issues may necessitate a breach of the policy. It is true that breaches need to be avoided as much as possible, since they erode confidence and trust. However, there are some justifiable circumstances that may necessitate a breach. The exceptions however, should be made evident to the future users of the policy. This necessitates a principle that would help to adjust the policy and clarify disclosure (Joinson and Paine 237). As a result, the Adjustment Principle is used under special circumstances to justify an alteration in the parameters of a private matter, but the alteration needs to be made clear and publicized.
Joinson, Adam N., and Carina B. Paine. “Self-disclosure, privacy and the Internet.” Oxford handbook of Internet psychology, 2007, pp. 237-252. Print.
Norberg, Patricia A., Daniel R. Horne, and David A. Horne. “The privacy paradox: Personal information disclosure intentions versus behaviors.” Journal of Consumer Affairs, vol. 41, no.1, 2007, pp. 100-126. Print.
Shin, Dong-Hee. “The effects of trust, security and privacy in social networking: A security-based approach to understand the pattern of adoption.” Interacting with computers, vol. 22, no.5, 2010, pp. 428-438. Print.
Westin, Alan F. “Social and political dimensions of privacy.” Journal of social issues, vol.59, no. 2, 2003, pp. 431-453. Print.
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