Due to the escalating sophistication of technology during the information age, privacy has become a romantic myth, little more than an urban legend kept in circulation by newscasters and armchair politicians. Electronic surveillance has effectively banished privacy from the public sector. E.g., there are hidden cameras behind the mirror in the dressing rooms at department stores. Consumer demographics has led to obnoxious telemarketers calling you during dinnertime, hawking a product or a service you may or may not need. The emergence of the Internet as the communication medium has in turn created a long digital ‘paper trail,’ which is much easier to share than hard copy paper documents. “Using the Internet is a bit like wandering around town dragging a road-marking machine with a film crew right behind it.”1
The specific information gathering methods I am concerned here are not the intentional information gathering of eavesdropping, spying or wiretapping, but the passive archives of personal information, and that concerns data privacy. Data privacy is basically more sensitive personal information – name, address, phone number, bank accounts, medical history, and etcetera – the things your mother warned you not to give to strangers. A credit card transaction is recorded by the store; a grocery store number links yourself to your purchases. The information of owning a home, a business, being a registered voter is public knowledge. Even your Internet service provider logs your online activity. They have a record of all the pages you visit, how long you stay on, what types of downloads you save on your computer. The good thing about this gargantuan amount of data is that most ISPs cannot investigate much and usually delete them after it is created, because it would not make any financial sense. But they are readily available if a law agency needs access.
The improved capability to monitor people’s activities during their work hours or at public areas or the ability to mine data from different sources has eliminated all pretense of privacy. Privacy used to be a cherished value, until security became an issue, until sensationalism became a priority, and corporations thought legal liability was more important than their employees’ civil rights. After September 11th, 2001, several companies bent over backwards far enough to accommodate the knee-jerk reactionaries at enforcement agencies by handing over their entire customer databases, with nary a warrant in sight. Even the United States government is getting in on the act by tracking Visas,2 which is, of course, carried out under the pretense of “national security.” Over in the Old World, the European Union awarded law enforcements sweeping power to monitor electronic communication (telephone, email, and other internet data) during summer of 2002.3
Thanks to the rise of modern technology, the proliferation of information has transformed humanity in more ways beyond the palpable application. The only way anyone could reconstruct a reasonable psychological profile for an adequate biography of a person who lived before the information age was through his or her personal letters. But today, thanks to the relatively efficient mode of communication – email, instant messages, online credit history, and discussion boards – the accuracy of a reconstruction of one’s profile has increased. The profiling techniques that is used online leads to a pastiche avatar that represents the user. Moreover, the virtual representation exists at the same time the actual user and that information may help project the user’s probable future based on his or her past behavior habits, as long as contingencies are factored in. In other words, your data has a social life too.
Perhaps we should stop ourselves and ask what the trade off here is. We should ask what exactly our assessment of privacy and discover what is worth conserving and decide what needs improving. Privacy is basically the comfort of anonymity. The issue of privacy involves two value concepts: security and liberty. Some element of security impedes on the potential freedom of liberty. Inversely, without any security there aren’t any constraints on liberty. However, the desire for security may override the comfort of liberty, but there is a point of no return in an increasingly sophisticated society where any action may be recorded somewhere, and we may have passed it already. Corporate liability and the officially sanctioned Peeping Tom antics by the government are motivated by reasons of security. How much security do we need, how much freedom do we want to maintain, before we end up with neither liberty nor security? Is it possible to gather intelligence for the purposes of security without “cannibalizing the civil liberties of Americans”?4
Really, what is the problem? Why should anyone worry about their own private ‘digital trail?’ For the most part, access to personal data leads to an increase in spam mail and calls from the friendly neighborhood telemarketer. But that is only the beginning of the slippery rocks of mayhem. Data mining creates the potential of abuse, or criminal acts such as credit card fraud or identity theft. Civil rights advocates are usually mobilized against data mining resources and other high-tech eavesdropping means. But the presumption of privacy as a sacrosanct belief is almost never inspected. There is no legal right to privacy whatever in the United States, since it is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. While there are court cases that rule for the “basic right to privacy,”5 others rule against this presumption as well.6 Currently there is no U. S. law against sharing data privacy (social security, driver’s license, medical histories) with other countries,7 while the EU prevents information about their consumers from being available for marketing. We have a long way to go to fix our ill-founded presumptions about privacy and at the same time, and be more judicious in our trust of the enforcement agencies or the commercial companies with personal information, which is a byproduct of knowledge/power.