"We should not expect our online activities to remain private"
PUBLISHED: 01 Feb 2010
AUTHOR: Dolan Cummings
We use the internet for an increasing variety of purposes: for reading news, paying bills, sharing photos, even watching television, and much more. And not only do our own computers record information about all of these activities, but we leave a trail on other computers too. Much of the time we don’t even think about this and imagine that what we do online is our own business. But this information trail can have a number of important consequences [Ref: Wikipedia]. First of all, if we are careless with sensitive information like credit card numbers, we can suffer fraud or even identity theft [Ref: Identity Theft]. Similarly, any pictures or comments we post on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook can all too easily end up being seen by people we’d rather not see them [Ref: Tech Radar]. Even if we are careful with our privacy settings [Ref: Allfacebook.com], however, and deal only with reputable websites and companies, information about our activities is out of our control. Social networking sites actually own the information posted by users, while internet service providers and search engines too routinely gather information for commercial purposes. If we use the internet at work or school, the management is generally entitled to monitor what we look at [Ref: Privacy Rights]. And governments can require internet service providers to hand over information about individuals’ internet use if they believe they are involved in crime, not least terrorism. The UK government recently created a new unit, the Communications Capabilities Directorate, to implement the controversial Interception Modernisation Programme, maintaining huge databases of people’s online activity [Ref: The Register]. Many internet users are therefore concerned that both private companies and governments gather far too much information about our online activities. Privacy advocates and campaigners argue that we should not give up lightly on the idea that we retain control of who knows what about our online activities [Ref: Privacy International].
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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
What are the arguments in the online privacy debate?
Secure software systems mean it is now generally safe to make financial transactions online, whether buying books or selling shares, while encryption and other security software is available for those with particular privacy concerns [Ref: Wikipedia]. But the question of whether we should expect privacy is not merely a technical one. Those who argue that online privacy is unrealistic believe that the very nature of how we use the internet today makes old-fashioned privacy concerns irrelevant or even undesirable [Ref: Guardian]. Irrelevant because the internet is all about sharing, not concealing – and if we are really concerned about keeping something private, we shouldn’t put it online in the first place [Ref: WebTechLaw]. It is also considered undesirable because the benefits of privacy are outweighed by those of convenience [Ref: Visual Revenue] and security [Ref: CNET.com] if we trust internet companies and government agencies with our information. Privacy advocates counter that whatever the technical difficulties, people are entitled to use the internet without surrendering personal information to private companies or governments, however benign [Ref: Wired]. Controversies about whether internet companies should collaborate with the authoritarian regime in China, meanwhile, remind us that there can be a dark side to state supervision [Ref: Asia News].
Trading privacy for convenience?
There are undoubtedly benefits to surrendering a degree of privacy online, for example, by accepting tracking ‘cookies’ from websites we visit [Ref: Visual Revenue]. If we trust internet companies with our address and credit card details, we can pay for books, flights and other services at the click of a mouse. Users of social networking sites get to use these sophisticated applications free of charge, and can use them to stay in touch with friends, share articles and pictures and chat online [Ref: Social Networking]. While some people object to companies retaining information about things they read and buy online, others like the fact that web applications can then tailor adverts to their interests rather than annoying them with a scattergun approach [Ref: eWeb Marketing]. There is also the potential for greater speed and efficiency in everything from paying tax to accessing health services if we allow the relevant agencies to store and share information about us. More generally, some argue that the general culture is simply changing, and that, in the words of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, ‘privacy is no longer a social norm’ [Ref: Guardian], especially for younger people who have grown up with the internet and are much more comfortable sharing pictures and so on [Ref: Wired]. On the downside, the more personal information we share online, the greater the chance it will be abused by criminals or unscrupulous companies. Critics argue that any move away from valuing privacy is a worrying cultural trend, since a degree of privacy is essential both to civil liberties and personal well-being, and that young people do value privacy in their own terms even if they behave differently from older generations [Ref: NPR].
Trading privacy for security?
There have long been concerns that the internet can be used by terrorist groups to recruit new members, raise money and plan attacks, and some argue this means we must be prepared to sacrifice some privacy [Ref: Daily Mail]. Security agencies have even been monitoring applications like Second Life for signs of terrorist activity. A recent paper by the US government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity group argued that, ‘What started out as a benign environment where people would congregate to share information or explore fantasy worlds is now offering the opportunity for religious/political extremists to recruit, rehearse, transfer money, and ultimately engage in information warfare or worse with impunity’ [Ref: Washington Post]. In this context, it is argued that we should all be willing to give up a little privacy so that security agencies can keep an eye on suspicious online behaviour. Critics counter that the scope for terrorist activity online is overblown, and little more than an excuse for governments to snoop on ordinary citizens. Juan Cole argues in Salon that, ‘Any monitoring by law enforcement of innocuous activity and communication in a virtual world, conducted broadly and without oversight, would be unconstitutional and could invade the privacy of millions of persons. I found no evidence based on my own observations that a virtual world is suitable for planning a terror operation’ [Ref: Salon].
So does privacy still matter?
Despite the purported benefits of giving up a degree of privacy, many internet users remain instinctively hostile to the idea that companies and government agencies can track their online activities. They point out that just because the internet makes it easier to store and share data, that doesn’t mean we have to go along with it. If we do accept it, it should be because we are convinced of the benefits. Telecoms expert Norman Lewis suggests what really matters is trust: if we genuinely trust companies with our data, that is very different from if they just assume we do [Ref: Battle of Ideas]. An important question, then, is whether we are asked to opt into a system in which our data will be stored our shared so we can reap benefits, or whether companies simply go ahead and do it for their own benefit. Similarly, privacy advocates protest that governments have not convinced them of the need to compromise privacy for national security [Ref: Salon]. Even if surrendering it would help the security services, they argue privacy remains an important consideration in its own terms. While the age-old argument against privacy is that ‘if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear’, critics like law professor John Fitzpatrick argue that in a free society we all have the right to keep secrets [Ref: Archive.org]. Just as the privacy of the voting booth is essential to democratic elections, a wider private sphere within which to think, debate and reflect beyond prying eyes is essential to democracy more generally. Like other civil libertarians [Ref: Liberty], security technologist Bruce Schneier argues the real choice is not between privacy and security but liberty versus control, because if we are constantly under surveillance, we are constantly fearful and self-conscious, and not able to act freely [Ref: Wired]. So while it might be difficult to maintain an expectation of privacy in a wired world, some believe we must do everything in our power not to abandon it.
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
Media Decoder blog, New York Times 11 January 2010
Norman Lewis Battles in Print 20 September 2009
Henry Porter Guardian Liberty Central blog 3 August 2009
Washington Post 6 February 2008
Nathalie Rothschild spiked 15 August 2007
BBC News 6 September 2002
CNET News.com 17 September 2001
Guardian 11 January 2010
Daily Mail 25 February 2009
Paul Jacobson Web.Tech.Law 2 February 2009
Nicholas Carr Rough Type 17 January 2010
Marshall Kirkpatrick ReadWriteWeb 11 January 2010
Daily Telegraph 27 April 2009
Bruce Schneier Wired 18 May 2006
David Adams OS News 11 December 2009
Gary Marshall TechRadar 10 December 2009
Danah Boyd Guardian 9 December 2009
Heather West Wired 1 October 2009
New York Times 29 September 2009
Bruce Schneier MPR News 31 July 2009
NPR 3 April 2008
BBC News 2 March 2008
Juan Cole Salon 25 February 2008
The Australian 31 July 2007
Jonathan Winer Counterterrorism blog 1 February 2007
New Scientist 9 June 2006
Evan Hansen CNET News.com 16 October 2001
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
James Welch Guardian 23 November 2009
Bruce Schneier Guardian 15 July 2009
Bruce Schneier Minneapolis Star Tribune 31 May 2009
Techdirt 12 March 2009
Sir David Omand ippr 9 February 2009
Tim Jones Electronic Frontier Foundation 6 February 2008
Emer Kirrane VisualRevenue
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
The Register 28 January 2010
BBC News 17 January 2010
PC World 13 January 2010
Guardian 13 January 2010
Guardian 17 December 2009
PC World 9 December 2009
Guardian 10 November 2009
Guardian Technology Blog 21 September 2009
The Times 2 July 2009
The Register 27 April 2009
Guardian 27 April 2009
Guardian 1 November 2008
Wired 22 February 2008
Wired 26 January 1999
8 January 2010
John Fitzpatrick Institute of Ideas Christmas Lecture 15 December 2009
Eric Schmidt CNBC 3 December 2009
Battle of Ideas 31 October 2009
Lewis Shepherd, a former senior technology officer at the US Defense Intelligence Agency 14 January 2008