discuss such delicate issues, we have to question ourselves, “What exactly is privacy? ” Privacy is defined as “the right to be let alone” (Warren & Brandeis, 1890). However, privacy is not such a simple concept. For ease of understanding, privacy, in this essay, is the ability of an individual or group to seclude information about themselves and to possess the right to retain anonymous. Privacy can be generally broken down into three categories – physical, organizational and informational (Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, 2008).
Possessing privacy is not just about preventing “intrusions into one’s physical space or solitude” (Smith, 1994). Instead, rapid advances in technology have propelled the safeguarding of privacy to the next level. In this information age, where the society has become open and fluid, one’s zone of privacy has considerably diminished with each passing technological innovation. This is evidently illustrated in the case of consumer privacy. The systematic loss of privacy for consumers can be divided into the database phase and the network phase.
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Precisely because it is so efficient and effortless to gather, store and transfer abundant amount of information, consumers’ privacy are being eroded rapidly. Through public records sold by government agencies, telephone or mail orders, memberships or warranty cards, companies are able to build a data profile of each individual with ease. However, what is more frightening is that this information may be collected without consumers’ knowledge, through tracking devices like cookies.
It is suggested that an individual’s personal information is his private property, according to some legal scholars such as Trotter Hardy, who supports this argument using John Locke’s “labour-desert” as well as Jeremy Bentham justification based on utilitarianism (The Ancient Doctrine of Trespass to Web Sites, 2008). Richard Spinello also agrees that, by giving individuals such property rights, the society recognises the economic value and proprietary nature of personal information (Spinello, 2006).
Hence, following these paradigms, individuals should have property rights in all personal information about themselves. And as important as the fact that they now have the greatest stake in how that information will be used, they should also have the right to know that this information is being mined from them. But can the Internet, or even part of it, be considered private? There are many issues to address, for example, inefficient flow of information due to the need to negotiate with every website vendor.
Since the beginning, the Internet has been known for its openness, with free flow of information. Thus, to argue that there exist a space which is private to each and everyone is challenging. No doubt, the Internet blurs the lines between the common notion of public and private space because cyberspace only has virtual boundaries. But is the loss of privacy really so dreadful? In the case of consumer privacy, data profiling by companies enhances their capability to predict consumers’ preferences and so, conduct targeted marketing to each consumer.
This personalised service catered to each individual in turn makes life easier for consumers. Property rights are not absolute, and just as one’s physical property may be subjected to extreme case to eminent domain, one’s personal information must at times be sacrifice for the common good (Spinello, 2006). One instance is when surveillance is applied in the field of national security. After incessant terrorist attacks, several countries have taken strong but controversial steps to safeguard the nation.
The United States, for example, created the United States Department of Homeland Security that has incorporated the USA PATRIOT Act that has expanded the Federal Government’s powers of surveillance, leaving some citizens very concerned about their rights to privacy (Panopticon: Government and Privacy in The New Millennium, 2003). Even the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, have placed priority of national security over individual privacy, saying in a recent speech, “[i]n other circumstances I would never have sought these new powers. But we live in very dangerous and different and threatening circumstances… I think all f these powers are needed” (Kerr, 2005). Surveillance may not only be carried out by the authorities, but also by companies in the private sector, or regular citizens, in a phenomenon known as participatory panopticon. David Lyon cites Bentham’s concept of allowing observers to monitor people without these people knowing whether they are being watched, at a given time (Lyon, 1999). This unprecedented level of monitoring by prying eyes located all over the network leads to non-violence, as opposed to Michel Foucault’s work of Discipline and Power.
It is easy to be blinded by the benefits surveillance can bring about. But this proliferation of surveillance has actually opened a can of worms. The collection and reuse of personal information is part of a panoptic sort that classifies people into different categories, including them in marketing scams or excluding them from certain life chances or essential services. Being profiled makes the common people easy targets of discrimination, causing them to suffer economic losses, public embarrassment, and these can have significant and long lasting consequences (Oscar, 1993).
This misuse of the information gained from surveillance also relates closely to Foucault’s theory of biopower, in which a state can exert total control over its constituents for the good of the state. Foucault further suggests that the best control is to be achieved through eugenics, a theory rife with racism and classism, where humans apply the concepts of natural selection to benefit the human race. Those with traits undesirable to the society, like poor backgrounds or significant health problems are selected out, preventing them from reproducing.
As well as employing population control, protection of the state in order to maintain power is a vital portion of biopower. This includes the destruction of any threatening elements to the state and justifies any actions taken by the state. The theories of biopower and eugenics are frightening to more than just a few people, as seen before in history in the mass extermination of Jews during WWII and in the more recent mass genocides in the Sudan, where biopower is in its most ugly and extreme form. Privacy is a delicate issue which must be appropriately dealt with, as the slightest mistake in handling it will spark massive chaos.
Privacy differs across cultures and individuals, yet shares basic common themes. In light of recent terrorism climate, individual’s privacy must seem to take a backseat to security. Nevertheless, the government should take scrupulous steps to ensure that the privacy of individuals is protected with utmost integrity, or their veracity would be at stake. According to Lawrence Lessig’s framework, there are many other constraints besides law, code, norms, marketplace and the solution might well be arriving at right mix of constraints (Regulation by Software, 2005).