Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 6    Privacy


Read the article below-it will appear as a pdf file that you can print out- and discuss the importance of privacy to you as an individual as a member of various groups and for a democratic form of political association.

Towards a Theory of Privacy in the Information Age – James H. Moor


Have digital technologies created a situation in our world today that is similar to a panopticon?  What is the impact of being in a panopticon on human behavior?  Our abilities to have certain relationships or to be members of groups?  What is the potential or actual impact on Democracy??


Go to the site below and after experiencing the presentation discuss to what degree privacy of individuals has been and may be compromised, limited or denied by actions of governments and corporations using digital technologies. 

ACLU Surveillance Campaign  How bad can it get?  Almost there?



The following are remarks, reflections and responses to issues and questions related to this matters in this chapter.  Each offering is proceeded by the authors name and institutional affiliation.

Chris Murphy, CUNY, SPS, 2007

I’d like to start with Marx’s observation that “Privacy is a value which may only be appreciated once it is lost”.  From this simple statement we can draw two fundamental ideas that go beyond face value to further our understanding of privacy.  The first, because what is private is difficult to grasp until it is taken away, implores us to be more critical in discerning what is private and be increasingly careful when deciding on the uses of private information, whether we believe it to be of importance to our privacy at the time or not.

Secondly we are given a starting place for identifying privacy, namely that which becomes readily apparent when it is taken way.  I believe that we can learn from previous mistakes and infringements to help guide or at least keep us alert.  It seems to me that there is a techno-culture developing that is rapidly separating itself from the traditional.  Riding this wave, and capitalizing off of it, are corporations and young entrepreneurs in the ‘know’.  

In essence we have a very real socioeconomic cultural revolution going on that the majority of the population (Baby boomers) are disjointed from.  Traditional policy is being sucked into this expanding gap by the technology savvy and not necessarily on purpose.  Marx makes another poignant statement, “There is the dangerous fallacy of believing that because it's possible to successfully skate on thin ice, it's acceptable to do so.”  Those on the side pushing the limits of ownership, privacy, ethics, self, are doing so because they can.  Cyberspace is there and we can fill it any way we choose, but does it mean that we have to fill in every way possible?  Is it ethical to do so?  In a world where nothing and everything happen at the same time, can ethics exist? These are questions that not everyone is asking and I agree with Marx that is a mistake not to look around a bit closer before jumping in headfirst.  

The ACLU website give us a good example of what can happen if we accidentally fall through the ice.  Can you even really be sure of where the thin patches are?  The say that, “the government and corporations are aggressively collecting information about your personal life and your habits.”  I ask, too what end?   My protection is what our current office has claimed, but I wonder why then are they surveying me?  Shouldn’t they be looking at the dangerous ones?  I’ve never even gotten a ticket; I’m more likely to drive 5mph under the speed limit than over, so why are they tracking me, surely not for my or anyone else’s protection.  This I understand and accept for my part, is a weak argument, however, so is the other side’s.  My use of it is really to point out the pettiness of discussions that are going on in the general arena.  If I have been picking up anything from this class at all, it is that I am always asking what are the ethical principals and where are they being implemented consistently.  

How do we determine the ethical value of, “The Panopticon ("all-seeing") functioned as a round-the-clock surveillance machine. Its design ensured that no prisoner could ever see the 'inspector' who conducted surveillance from the privileged central location within the radial configuration. The prisoner could never know when he was being surveilled -- mental uncertainty that in itself would prove to be a crucial instrument of discipline.”  I can’t say that we can justify this by using Kant’s categorical imperative as this type of surveillance undermines the dignity and autonomy of those being watched.   

In the Virtual Community Howard Rheingold gives us some aim to shoot for when he says that, “those who would prefer the more democratic vision of the future have an opportunity to influence the outcome, which is precisely why online activists should delve into the criticisms that have been leveled against them.”  Though I believe this to be true, I also believe that we have a unique opportunity to reinvent ourselves is a truly ethical manner.  Aristotle says that every lesser art is practiced for and is subject to the benefit of the master art.  In doing so he determined politics to be the master of all arts.  And as I think that anyone would choose the ethical leader over the unethical leader, wouldn’t it makes sense to determine the policies for our new cyber world based on ethics alone and not political systems that are subject to ethics and not purveyors of it?

If we were to employ ethics in the questions of privacy, I would without question apply Kantian theory.  From his imperative we can determine weather the use of private information is in accordance with treating a person as an end in themselves or as a means to some end.  In our decisions we would always allow the former and never allow the later. As Marx says, “Unlimited privacy is hardly an unlimited good”, and our categorical imperative complies.  

Privacy, our traditional understanding of its nature and subsequently the protection of such are in constant flux.  Technology, as it has proven to do many times before, and in many other areas, is forcing us to become more critical of our beliefs and actions.  As ethics is the means for us to determine what is right and what is wrong to do, we must rely on it here in much the same way.  Kant’s categorical imperative in one facet does not allow for us to treat anyone as a means to an end.  In many cases the misuse of private information is for this very reason, obtaining someone’s private information to get some external end.  If we can peel back the layers of the privacy debate and come to some consensus on the true motivations behind the uses of such information we can then determine what is the right thing to do in a particular situation.  

Marie Lafferty, CUNY, SPS, 2007 

“Because privacy is instrumental in support of all the core values, it is instrumental for important matters; and because privacy is a necessary means of support in a highly computerized culture, privacy is instrumentally well grounded for our society. Moreover, because privacy is an expression of the core value of security, it is a plausible candidate for an intrinsic good in the context of a highly populated, computerized society.

                          Towards a Theory of Privacy in the Information Age  James Moor 

Moor defends privacy as a value that is intrinsic to the survival and functioning of society. He claims that the value of privacy comes from its value as an instrument to provide for a secure society and to protect individuals from harm. He goes further to say that privacy is instrumental to all of the core values, and defines the core values as those which all humans share, irrespective of culture or tradition.  This seems a better defense than Deborah Johnson’s argument that privacy itself is an intrinsic value. To some degree most societies have privacy, but many have very different definitions, so that the common value is a very small portion of what we look at when we talk about the internet.  But there is no question, as Johnson insists, that privacy has psychological impact and purpose, and therefore value—Bentham’s purpose in controlling the confined, whether prisoners or invalids, exactly makes Johnson’s point about altered behavior.  In some cases, but not all, lack of privacy curtails autonomy, which is Johnson’s justification for privacy.  But it isn’t complete. It seems to turn on itself, using each value to justify the other. 

Moor realizes that withholding all information does not allow for society to function, so he acknowledges that some information is necessarily kept private but other information is expendable.  In making his case, he stands back. He is obligated to consider the utilitarian value of the common good, and in that respect, the internet provides a good for us all. He recognizes what natural law would call a discernible truth. In process, he obligates us to some dissemination of information, then includes the necessity that we agree to the use of our information.  The CDT proposal for a workable solution includes certain principles which Moor may very well agree with: proportionality, individual control, notice and access to (one’s own) personal data, limited use, programmed security, and perhaps most importantly, accountability.  And so may we. Each of these individually, and  especially in sum, are principles that work towards ensuring the real value Moor is after: security. 

"Computer technology has created not just a new medium but a new place. The society we erect there will probably be quite different from the one we now inhabit, given the fact that this one depends heavily on the physical property of things while the next one has no physical properties at all. Certain qualities should survive the transfer, however, and these include tolerance, respect for privacy of others, and a willingness to treat one's fellows as something besides potential customers.”


I don’t at all think that Barlow advocates for less privacy on the internet in the quotation I’ve provided. But he does point out that cyberspace is a new world, and that is the best we can say now. We have the opportunity to determine what is to be in this space.  We should start now. The rules will change. The level of privacy that we have become accustomed to must change as well. It is physically (technologically) to maintain the 20th century.  Our job—all of us—will be to use ethical reasoning in the interest of society to review the values that we have, and evaluate them against the values that we’ve said we live by, as a nation, as an individual.   

Some of these values are already in conflict. It is somewhat simplistic to say that we want the internet for convenience, it is that, but it is so much more. We have the possibility to use it to promote values, as Barlow notes above.  Each theory of ethics has something to contribute. Kant warns against simply using the individual as a means to an end. There are many instances on the internet when this is the case—sales data collection is a good example.  The operating principle, I think, should be to provide the most value to the most people, and to the least advantaged among them. The most value includes keeping some things private, and protection of the individual.  In order to do so, some level of privacy, with the acceptance of all, has been given up. More will come, I predict.  This may be a necessity. We won’t avoid government interference, so we need to start looking at how we can ethically allow only what is necessary, and then control that aspect.  As Moor pointed out, some zones of privacy should be maintained. Others can not and will not, if we want to maintain a secure society. 

Jack Friedman, CUNY, SPS, 2007

The strongest arguments in favor of the Government’s right to monitor their citizens usually defend that right as a matter of security. It is clearly a Utilitarian position of allowing monitoring of certain individuals will benefit the greater good. Attempts to monitor those individuals that “might” be up to no good is worthwhile and moral if the end result is peace and security for the rest of society. In the following article from Directions Magazine, entitled Technology and Homeland Security By Kevin Coleman published on March 06, 2003 some very strong points are made. 

The article starts by pointing out the large increase in terrorist activities while also noting that advances in technology are the “new” weapons of combat. It starts, “The characteristics of terrorism make it more dangerous and difficult to combat. The strategies, tactics, and weapons of conventional warfare must be modified and adapted to address these new characteristics. It is clear to see, from a conventional point of view, the terrorists are winning the war. The number of global terrorist attacks increased by a factor of 100 from 1996 to 2001.In 2001, the kill ratio was 5.3 to 1 (for every one terrorist that was killed, 5.3 citizens/law enforcement/ military personnel died).Clearly, new and innovative approaches are necessary to protect and defend against terrorism. Few people would question the role technology now plays in any type of conflict.  The tools of war changed relatively little for thousands of years.  Scientific and technological breakthroughs resulted in significant changes in the tactics and weapons used in conflict. The Civil War witnessed the introduction of new technology and other industrial technologies that would change civilization forever.   The infusion of technology in conflicts has resulted in changes to the strategy and tactics of war and has become the deciding factor in achieving victory.  The increased destructiveness of these tools of war has profoundly affected society at both mental and physical levels.

From the corporate wars fought in the boardroom to the war on terrorism fought in virtually every corner of the world, technology provides combatants the ability to both protect and destroy.”

They further note however that, “Terrorist groups are becoming increasingly familiar with technology and its application as a weapon.” This clearly changes the rules of engagement in their opinion and they discuss a new term; Black Operations “A Black Operation is defined as technology or resources that are NOT visible or disclosed to the general public.” For example, “(Just a concept) The United States intelligence communities create and deploy internet listening devices on the computers of known or suspected militant groups thought to be sympathetic to Al Queda.” 

Their argument continues, “Clearly, you can see that the black operations require secrecy or it would defeat the intention of the action.  These covert activities gather information by many different means.  It has long been known that a massive computing farm exists within the confines of the National Security Agency (NSA). …The new war is all about information -- vast amounts of information from all over the globe.”  

The focus of homeland security is to protect the people of the United States against terrorist attacks.  Clearly the use of force or offensive weapons fall to the military and some law enforcement agencies.  The primary tactics for securing the homeland will fall under "Black Operations."   We will never fully know the majority of the protections and activities undertaken in an effort to ensure our security.  While some find comfort in that fact, others have expressed outrage over the possible loss of civil liberties and privacy.  In fact in the confirmation of Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security, he was called upon to protect the United States without dissuading individual's rights - a near impossible task given the need to gather significant amounts of information on a broad spectrum of topics. “

As a plan of action, the author recommends the following, “It is clear that terrorists have begun to use modern tools and technology to perform common terrorist activities. We know they are interested in obtaining weapons of mass destruction and evidence suggest weapons of mass disruption (cyber attacks) pose a significant danger to a society addicted to information.

Advanced technologies are the key to homeland defense and security.  As research and development of new and improved technological components are integrated together to provide multiple layers of security one must consider the social, business and legal implications.  Technologies such as smart, face recognition, smart documents (visas and passports), digital surveillance, and data fusion techniques are just a sample of the tools we can use to combat terrorism both at home and abroad.

With the framework described above, we will investigate the application of four specific areas of emerging technology on homeland security and defense. “ Finally, the article concludes, “One thing is clear.  The value of information technology in the war against terrorism is ever increasing.  Information technology can be used as an offensive or defensive tool/weapon.  Offensive use of information technology may include systems or software that deny, exploit, corrupt, or destroy an adversary's information, information-based processes, information systems, and computer-based networks while protecting one's own.  Defensive use of information technology may include intelligence gathering systems, sensor networks, alerting and communications systems, and systems that interrupt massive amounts of data to uncover patterns of activities related to terrorism.  It seems very clear that the above introduction to technology and homeland security suggests that technology provides both the tools for terrorists and the defenses to combat terrorism.”

From the other perspective, this article, Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society by Jay Stanley and Barry Steinhardt, published in January 2003 supports the ACLU position of an absolute right to privacy. They begin, “For decades, the notion of a “surveillance society,” where every facet of our private lives is monitored and recorded, has sounded abstract, paranoid or far-fetched to many people. No more! The public’s recent introduction to the Pentagon’s “Total Information Awareness” project, which seeks to tie together every facet of our private lives in one big surveillance scheme, has provided a stunning lesson in the realities of the new world in which we live. The revelations about the Total Information Awareness program have given the public a sudden introduction to the concept of “data surveillance,” and an early glimmer of the technological potential for a surveillance society. It has also confirmed the national security and law enforcement establishments’ hunger for such surveillance. Yet too many people still do not understand the danger, do not grasp just how radical an increase in surveillance by both the government and the private sector is becoming possible, or do not see that the danger stems not just from a single government program, but from a number of parallel developments in the worlds of technology, law, and politics.” I would consider this argument similar to Kant’s Categorical Imperative where we should, “Never treat a person as a means to an end.” []. Clearly they feel as if the government is exploiting individual rights. 

The article continues, “Privacy and liberty in the United States are at risk. A combination of lightning-fast technological innovation and the erosion of privacy protections threatens to transform Big Brother from an oft-cited but remote threat into a very real part of American life. We are at risk of turning into a Surveillance Society. The explosion of computers, cameras, sensors, wireless communication, GPS, biometrics, and other technologies in just the last 10 years is feeding a surveillance monster that is growing silently in our midst.” And “Even as this surveillance monster grows in power, we are weakening the legal chains that keep it from trampling our lives. We should be responding to intrusive new technologies by building stronger restraints to protect our privacy; instead, we are doing the opposite – loosening regulations on government surveillance, watching passively as private surveillance grows unchecked, and contemplating the introduction of tremendously powerful new surveillance infrastructures that will tie all this information together.” 

The ACLU considers the argument of National security to be bogus. They cite, “A gradual weakening of our privacy rights has been underway for decades, but many of the most startling developments have come in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. But few of these hastily enacted measures are likely to increase our protection against terrorism. More often than not, September 11 has been used as a pretext to loosen constraints that law enforcement has been chafing under for years. It doesn’t require some apocalyptic vision of American democracy being replaced by dictatorship to worry about a surveillance society. There is a lot of room for the United States to become a meaner, less open and less just place without any radical change in government. All that’s required is the continued construction of new surveillance technologies and the simultaneous erosion of privacy protections.” 

The article continues to point out different types of surveillance and technology and the chilling effects of each. They conclude, “If we do not take steps to control and regulate surveillance to bring it into conformity with our values, we will find ourselves being tracked, analyzed, profiled, and flagged in our daily lives to a degree we can scarcely imagine today. We will be forced into an impossible struggle to conform to the letter of every rule, law, and guideline, lest we create ammunition for enemies in the government or elsewhere. Our transgressions will become permanent Scarlet Letters that follow us throughout our lives, visible to all and used by the government, landlords, employers, insurance companies and other powerful parties to increase their leverage over average people. Americans will not be able to engage in political protest or go about their daily lives without the constant awareness that we are – or could be – under surveillance. We will be forced to constantly ask of even the smallest action taken in public, “Will this make me look suspicious? Will this hurt my chances for future employment? Will this reduce my ability to get insurance?” The exercise of free speech will be chilled as  Americans become conscious that their every word may be reported to the government by FBI infiltrators, suspicious fellow citizens or an Internet Service Provider.” 

I chose these articles because they focused on the specific topic of privacy rights and technology. They offered diametric points of view on privacy in relation to National security. I thought this comparison was most relevant and topical. I personally believe that neither of these arguments is arguable, that both are too extreme and the best answer lies somewhere in the middle. I found the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, Adopted by ACM Council  on 10/16/92 to be a more reasonable approach to this discussion.  While Kevin Coleman seemed to think that any efforts on behalf of the government in the interests of National security were moral, the ACLU didn’t even acknowledge that technology in the hands of our enemy does constitute a threat. The Association for Computing Machinery developed a set of ethical standards for its members to live by relating to technology described as, “The Code and its supplemented Guidelines are intended to serve as a basis for ethical decision making in the conduct of professional work”  

In particular, Section 1.7 of the Code read, “1.7 Respect the privacy of others.

Computing and communication technology enables the collection and exchange of personal information on a scale unprecedented in the history of civilization. Thus there is increased potential for violating the privacy of individuals and groups. It is the responsibility of professionals to maintain the privacy and integrity of data describing individuals. This includes taking precautions to ensure the accuracy of data, as well as protecting it from unauthorized access or accidental disclosure to inappropriate individuals. Furthermore, procedures must be established to allow individuals to review their records and correct inaccuracies.

This imperative implies that only the necessary amount of personal information be collected in a system, that retention and disposal periods for that information be clearly defined and enforced, and that personal information gathered for a specific purpose not be used for other purposes without consent of the individual(s). These principles apply to electronic communications, including electronic mail, and prohibit procedures that capture or monitor electronic user data, including messages, without the permission of users or bona fide authorization related to system operation and maintenance.”

But it adds, “User data observed during the normal duties of system operation and maintenance must be treated with strictest confidentiality, except in cases where it is evidence for the violation of law, organizational regulations, or this Code. In these cases, the nature or contents of that information must be disclosed only to proper authorities.”

This exception is why I find the code preferential to the ACLU’s input on the topic. I personally feel the Patriot Act and TIA and similar measures by the Bush administration have gone too far. I believe that violating citizen’s right to privacy should be the rare exception rather than the rule. That is why the words “probable cause” appears in our statutes. My views are also Utilitarian. I do believe that on occasion, some innocent may suffer through a loss of civil rights for the overall good. I also think that a majority of the people agree with that. We live in an imperfect world with imperfect technology and imperfect means of detecting our enemies. Unfortunately, in this type of world some of us will have to pay a price.

Richard Vida, CUNY, SPS, 2007 

“The ratio of what individuals know about themselves (or are capable of knowing) vs. what outsiders and experts can know about them has shifted away from the individual.” (

As I read the above passage from an article entitled “Privacy and Technology” by Gary T. Marx, I found myself growing more and more militant about the fact that our rights to individual privacy are recklessly being taken away as technology continues to multiply at rates undetectable to the naked eye.  Just what does the government and every website including this CUNY Blackboard know about me?  I don’t have anything to hide, or do I?  That one question instills enough paranoia in an individual to completely admonish ones autonomy.  

Marx continues to cite Justice Brandeis who in 1928 wrote: “discovery and invention have made it possible for the government, by means far more effective than stretching upon the rack to obtain disclosure in court of what is whispered in the closet. The progress of science in furnishing the government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wiretapping."  

“New technologies for collecting personal information which transcend the physical, liberty enhancing limitations of the old means are constantly appearing. They probe more deeply, widely and softly than traditional methods, transcending barriers (whether walls, distance, darkness, skin or time) that historically protected personal information. The boundaries which have defined and given integrity to social systems, groups and the self are increasingly permeable absent special precautions. The power of governmental and private organizations to compel disclosure (whether based on technology, law or circumstance) and to aggregate, analyze and distribute personal information is growing rapidly.”  

Ethically our corporate and governmental cultures tend to be egoistic, thus our liberty is continually challenged.  Utility may suggest that the few unlucky ones whose personal information is displayed causing any type of discrimination to that individual may be worth the risk, as technology makes life so easy. As summarized in Laura Hartman’s Speech on Privacy in the Workplace she summarizes Rawl’s “veil of ignorance” theory as he asks “we consider what rules we would impose on this society if we had no idea whether we would be princes or paupers; employees or employers.”   But is this questioning on ethics occurring at all in the boardrooms of our corporations or in our government agencies?   

It is imperative that we do indeed find a system to regulate information provided by individuals both on websites and in the workplace.  Regulations not imposed by government, but by the people.  We the people need to enforce what we will be able to live with as far as what information may be compiled.  As in any movement, apathy will create nothing.   

I do believe that privacy is a core value and as James H. Moor quotes James Rachael in his article on “Privacy in the Information Age; “privacy is valuable because it enables us to form varied relationships with other people.”   Therefore, the biggest hurdle I feel that is presenting itself in cyberspace is the lack of relationships.  Cyberspace is ethereal, a faceless world. Cyber information must somehow be given a face as we all behave differently in person (far less brave).  

Pondering the ethical dilemmas to privacy and how we may possibly control so much information I was intrigued by John Perry Barlow’s article: “Private Life in Cyberspace.” His reservations for government regulation of formation and how he describes it as more of a restriction of information and data, not too mention, the government’s poor record of regulating anything.    

“Quite apart from the impracticality of entrusting to government another tough problem (given its fairly undistinguished record in addressing the environmental, social, or educational responsibilities it already has), there is a good reason to avoid this strategy. Legally assuring the privacy of one's personal data involves nothing less than endowing the Federal Government with the right to restrict information.” (

Barlow continued to enlighten me with this thought:  

“It may be that there is a profound incompatibility between the requirements of privacy (at least as achieved by this methods) and the requirements of liberty. It doesn't take a paranoid to believe that restrictions placed on one form of information will expand to include others. Nor does it take a Libertarian to believe that the imposition of contraband on a commodity probably won't eliminate its availability. I submit, as Exhibit A, the War on Some Drugs.” 

Perhaps are overwhelming concern for privacy is too great.  We’re consumed by information and it’s not going to stop.  Maybe it’s security and not privacy that should be our main concern.  So what if a corporation or government knows all of my data just make sure it’s handled properly and secure from the wrong people.  

Barlow also mentioned that in his small town in Wyoming, privacy is non-existent.  The small town mentality with everyone being privy to one another’s business makes it impossible to hide.   Perhaps that’s what we’ve become or are becoming as this information age continues to spawn.     

“Barring government regula¬tion of information, for which I have no enthusiasm, it seemed inevitable that the Global Village would resemble a real village at least in the sense of eliminating the hermetic sealing of one's suburban privacy. Everyone would start to lead as public a life as I do at home.”


Do we really ever have privacy?  Is it just in our imagination?  Interesting to analyze, but now that we are living in a cyber-global village how do we close our blinds from our virtual neighbor?  It may just be impossible.  

As many fear a Panopticon, the “all-seeing” surveillance machine, I don’t believe this information age will present such a danger.   In fact, I believe it has opened most of our eyes to the possibilities of information restriction.  In this global cyber village, everyone including the governing bodies are under surveillance by the “people,”  more than any other time in history and that’s a good thing.

Joseph Snellenberg, CUNY, SPS, 2007

For Maximum Privacy

“Computers provide a new enormously powerful tool for investigation, surveillance and intrusion into our personal lives. We should expect the government to meet an especially high standard for privacy protection, because it is coercive by nature. It has the power to arrest people, jail them, and seize assets from them. We have no choice, in most cases, about providing our personal information to the government.”

(Baase, Sara. A Gift of Fire: Social, legal and ethical issues for computers and the Internet. Pearson Education, Inc. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 2003 Pg. 49) 

            This quote from Sara Baase’s book is a very important statement in favor of maximum privacy because it alludes to the power of not only technology—specifically computers—but the power of the government in society. Governments are granted special rights to help maintain order in a society; however, those in a position of power do not always stay true to their ideals. In other words, politicians have the potential to abuse that power. In terms of personal information, this potential is very high because of a paradox in the foundations of government. The government is committed to maintaining order and protecting its citizens from harm. However, the government is generally the final word on what is good and what is evil in a society. That said, the government can declare someone a “person of interest” and openly seize and view your personal information with almost no warning.

            With that in mind, the quote brings forth another problem about privacy: the growth of computer technology. Today, you can find almost anything you want—and don’t want to find—on the Internet. The things that one does not want to find include personal information such as your name, telephone/cellphone numbers, social security number, and your bank account number, just to name a few. The people that can gain illegal access are not always hackers, thieves and scam artists; sometimes, those people can include government officials who have been given your name for various reasons, ranging from possible tax fraud or to possible anti-government activities. Unlike hackers or thieves, these government officials have permission to gain access to and view your personal information. On top of this, there is no way to know when your information is in public view because of the growth of computer technology. A simple grocery store run could potentially reveal your bank account number and/or credit card number, for example. In the case of the government, most people have no way to refuse a government request or demand that you turn over personal information to them. The reason is because if you do attempt to resist, you are most likely going to be viewed as an enemy of the government until you either prove that the government acted improperly or you comply with the government’s requests.

            Overall, this quote shows that privacy laws and regulations in today’s world are in need of an improvement. If the government is abusing its power to gain access to personal information for potentially unethical reasons, then it needs to be stopped before it gets out of control. People should not have to worry about having their personal information being given to the government without permission or probable cause. The Internet is a place where people should be able to enjoy themselves and do what they want, not have to look over their shoulders every five minutes to make sure no personal data has been left behind for either hackers or government officials to exploit. Personal privacy is a right that should be upheld and valued to the utmost highest by not only the people, but by the government that granted that very right in the first place.


Against Maximum Privacy

“Market supporters argue that laws requiring specific policies or prohibiting certain kinds of contracts violate the freedom of choice of both consumers and businesses. Private firms are owned by individuals or groups of individuals who have invested their own resources in the business. They should be free to offer the selection of products, services and terms that they choose. Consumers should have the freedom to sell personal data if they choose.”

(Baase, Sara. A Gift of Fire: Social, legal and ethical issues for computers and the Internet. Pearson Education, Inc. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 2003 Pg. 79) 

            This quote from Sara Baase’s book outlines one of the key arguments against strict privacy laws: market competition. If everyone chooses to use the same product in a field where there are ten different products made by ten different companies, then there are nine companies that are losing revenue and a lot of consumers are losing out on various opportunities that may be more beneficial to them in the long run. If laws limiting what personal information is revealed to companies are in place, then both the consumer and the businesses suffer because their First Amendment rights are limited.

            Under such laws, instead of being free to choose what products a consumer wants or needs, the consumer is limited to picking what products offer the maximum amount of personal privacy. While this may sound good to most consumers, when you look at it from financial and ethical standpoints, it creates a situation where one company stands to create a monopoly of a certain financial sector. If this situation was to occur, then the government would have to intervene and break up the monopoly into individual companies. In other words, for a society to gain one element, another element must severely decrease in value or be lost completely.

            In the end, the paradox of enacting any form of privacy protection law is that something else in society must be sacrificed in order to allow the privacy law to work. The quote above describes one of the most likely potential candidates: diversity in the marketplace. In order to have full consumer satisfaction, a company or group of companies could decide to distribute products in a form that guarantees maximum consumer satisfaction, while they lose something else, like competition from other companies that cannot meet consumer satisfaction needs. Simply put, the market will slowly whittle down until only a few companies remain in control of everything in the marketplace because these few companies complied with the government’s laws on personal privacy and succeeded in making products that fulfill what the laws detail.

Personal Feelings on Privacy

            I am very strong on having the maximum amount of privacy on the Internet made available. I feel that when you go online, you shouldn’t have to worry about having to avoid certain websites simply because the chances of exposing your personal information are alarmingly high.  Also, I feel that having to check every piece of email you get just to make sure your messages are not infected with malicious software or similar programs is tiring. On top of this, I feel that our own government, especially under the current administration, has steadily increased its level of illegal searches and information gathering. The U.S. government says it upholds the rights of the citizens; however, “A GAO study of 65 government Web sites in 2000 found that only 3% of the sites fully comply with the ‘fair information’ standards…established by the Federal Trade Commission for commercial Web sites. The FTC itself was one of the sites that did not comply.” (Baase, pg 46). If the very government institution that created a set of standards for Web site rules in the U.S. cannot follow the guidelines it laid out, then either the guidelines need to be revised or the institution be questioned as to why such a colossal failure to comply with government standards exists.

            In my opinion, never has the feeling that the world in George Orwell’s 1984 is so close to becoming reality than it has been under the current presidential administration. The level of deception seen in our current leaders has made me more cautious with my personal information and how I reveal such information. I have all of my email, antivirus, antispyware and firewall programs set on the highest level of protection simply because of how easy it can be for someone—whether they be a hacker or a government official—to obtain my personal information when I surf the Web. This sometimes comes at a cost; I have had to manually allow certain programs and email contacts to be shown because of this behavior. I never have acted this way until very recently, but current events and the growth of technology have shaped my view on privacy.

            Before 2003, I had more or less a laid-back view on the government; I really didn’t care too much about it or most of what it did, but I respected the government despite the comments about the current administration. Since 2003, I have lost all respect for the current administration and have a weaker sense of respect for the rest of the government. I feel that the Bush administration’s view on the world and how they conduct business is a slap in the face of the ideals outlined in the U.S. Constitution. If they think that protecting the country from terrorism means tapping everyone’s telephone lines and listening in on private conversations, then I want no part of a country that believes that this behavior is morally and ethically correct. No matter how hard the President tries to make this program pass in Congress over the next year, it will not happen simply because of how I imagine the program will single out “unpatriotic citizens”; aside from the usual suspicious activity (e.g., talking with gun sellers, demolition experts, flight school instructors, etc.), the program might single out people who simply say, “I do not approve of this administration” or “I hate the President”. I will be honest and admit that this view is very extreme, but this is how much I no longer trust the current Presidency to protect my privacy and personal information.

            Privacy and most arguments for and against providing the maximum amount are generally rooted within the Fourth Amendment, but it also can be carried by the First Amendment. The right to freedom of speech has two sides to it: you can be free to choose what you say AND you can be free to choose what not to say. If you do not want to reveal personal information, then you should be free to do so without worry or concern. However, if there is a law in place that severely limits or alters that very right to suit a select group or people, then there should be immediate action to prevent that law from doing harm or civil unrest. Privacy is something that deserves to be protected not just by one Amendment that is dependent on the behavior of the government, but also one Amendment that will almost always be upheld, regardless of the opinions of the government or similar body.

            While the behavior of our government in recent years has brought privacy to the forefront of social discussions, computer technology cannot be totally ignored in terms of protecting personal information. A computer 20 years ago could only do a limited amount of tasks; computers nowadays can do virtually everything in the world. This includes both helpful tasks like allowing people to communicate with friends and family in different cities or even states as well as malicious tasks like stealing personal information from a bank. Such technology would power the Bush administration’s proposed wiretapping plan, thus making computing technology something to both respect and fear if that plan ever passes.

            Internet sites also leave behind traces that you were there, in the form of something that has gained the social slang term, “cookie”. Cookies store information on your computer about sites you visit so when you come back to the site at a later time, the site can instantly recall what you have seen and have not seen during the time you were not on the website. While this may sound helpful for people browsing the Web, these cookies can store every little piece of information ranging from passwords to credit card numbers you enter on sites. In short, a single cookie in the hands of a hacker can be one thing that can destroy a person’s life simple because he or she had her entire identity stolen based on the one cookie. Also, cookies can be used to deliver malicious software that can be used to not only steal information from your computer, but to destroy the hard drive itself. Nowadays, software exists to delete cookies from a computer’s hard drive, but cookies still remain a serious threat to personal privacy.

            Overall, privacy is an issue that has changed and evolved into something that is very prevalent in today’s society. As much as technology is related to this change, I feel the change is more or less rooted in how our government has changed over the past six years. Regardless, the reason as to why technology is an important factor in enforcing more privacy regulations is because it can be used by anyone nowadays. Hackers and scam artists are no longer the sole perpetrators in gaining illegal access to personal information; the government feels that it is morally correct to gain complete access to private records in order to ensure the maximum amount of national defense. With the growth of technology, this could be possible and a reality that is walking up to our doorstep. The cookies given out by websites are also a big concern in terms of protecting private information. Again, a cookie containing your personal information in the hands of a government official can be just as dangerous as having that cookie in the hands of a hacker. That one cookie can be used to turn you from a law-abiding citizen into a threat to the country in a blink of an eye. I hope that in the coming years, the government realizes that while national defense is important, undermining the trust of the people in their government is not something that should be sacrificed in order to ensure the United States is safe from enemies abroad. 

Jennifer Lowe, CUNY, SPS, 2007

A beautiful idea was sprung forth in our Constitution back in 1776 – it was call the 4th Amendment.

“Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”    Copied from:

Below is the insult to our country’s legacy committed this summer.  The government may justify this decision by saying they are being altruistic or they are looking out for our best interest.  I think otherwise – it disgusted me. 

Bush Spy Bill Approved In The House

Saturday August 04th 2007, 7:04 pm
Filed under: 4th Amendment, Bush, Congress, Freedom, Police State, Privacy, Surveillance, US Constitution,

That’s right, our Congress has rubber stamped a bill written by the Bush Administration that is supposed to make warrantless wiretapping okay, even though the Congress has no Authority to grant Unconstitutional powers to the Executive.

From the article:

“After months of prodding by House Republicans, Congress has finally closed the terrorist loophole in our surveillance law — and America will be the safer for it,” declared House Minority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.

The terrorist loophole? Is this guy for real?

Face it folks, our country is basically gone. Every Congressman and Senator that voted yes on this bill is a traitor, point blank.

The questions is what are we going to do about it?”    From

Is this morally good?  If I use the categorical imperative – I think not.

From the readings and research I did online there are many arguments for privacy. There are great concerns on how much of our personal information is being displayed without our knowledge and what that info is being used for.  The article titled “Privacy and Technology” by Gary T. Marx really stood out in my mind. I found his passage below supporting privacy and anonymity to be very strong.

“The ability to control information about the self is linked to the dignity of the individual, self-respect and the sense of personhood. Self-presentations and back-stage behavior are dependent on such control.

Anonymity can be socially useful in encouraging honesty, risk-taking, experimentation and creativity.

Confidentiality (via dissemination protections) improves communication flows and is vital to trust in professional (doctors, lawyers, psychologists) and corporate settings.

Privacy is a resource in inter-personal relations, doled out and exchanged as relationships progress. Intimacy is based partly on the voluntary sharing of personal information with others. Individuals feel free to be "themselves" as they get to know others better, and reciprocal exchanges take place.

The control of information is a strategic resource in impersonal relations. Trade secrets and copyrights are a formal expression of this.

Group boundaries are maintained partly by control over information. Individuals are in or out, and occupy organizational positions based partly on what they are entitled to know and have access to.

Privacy makes possible the American ideal of starting over and the fresh start.

Fairness can be protected by denying access to information which could be put to unfair use. For example while religious discrimination is illegal, if employers, schools, and landlords could ask it (as in most cases they now can not) such protections would be weakened.

Privacy can help provide the solitude and peace necessary to mental health and creativity in a dynamic society. Here it is a question of control over what is taken in, rather than what is given out” Copied from:

Now that we have stated the reasons why privacy is so important to society it is time to do a 180 degree turn and present the ideas why we should not adhere to privacy rules.  Please see below fromWikipedia. “Reasons for not maintaining privacy It has been reasoned that privacy discourages information sharing between individuals which in turn can lead to mistrust and intolerance amongst people and perpetuate false information. If information can be shared widely, then facts can generally be verified through many different sources and there are less chances of inaccuracies. It has also been reasoned that privacy can perpetuate stigma and intolerance. The reasoning behind this is that restrictions on information about people can inhibit and discourage collection and finding of data that is required for an accurate analysis and discussion on the causes and root of the stigma and intolerance. Philosophers often ask how people can learn to accept each other if they cannot know about each other.

Issues have also been raised that privacy can encourage criminal activity as it makes it easier for criminals to hide their unlawful activities.

More pragmatically, privacy sometimes is not maintained because there is a benefit provided by disclosure”

Copied from:

I believe this an issue that cannot be dealt with in black & white.  There are a lot of levels or scenarios one must consider when making laws regarding privacy.

My friends know that I’ll tell them almost anything about myself (whether it is good, bad or ugly).  I have nothing to hide – my life for the “most part” is an open book to those around me.  So why am I such an advocate for privacy?  The release of information to my friends is on my terms.  This is very different than some entity following my shopping habits online, tracking the numbers I call on my cell phone or seeing what prescriptions I may be ordering.  When I pontificate to my friends I am IN CONTROL.  This is the difference between voluntary and involuntary release of information.

“Privacy is a value which may only be appreciated once it is lost”  Copied from:

turn to next section

Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents