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Pro 250 Final Essay: Online Privacy
PRO 250 Final Essay: Online Privacy
Professor Ellen Wolterbeck
University of Advancing Technology
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There is nothing greater than an idea whose time has come. [FL1]
In our time, that idea may well be the Internet. The Internet is a radical discontinuity
as a communications technology, but it also represents a projection of the needs and
desires of the world. The web in its way embodies two of Mankind’s oldest dreams,
to be omnipresent and to be invisible. Yet organizing a new form of viewing the world
has its price. For the Internet, that price might be the loss of anonymity. Ideally the
flexible personality could enter into this technological consensus without loss of self.
The Net allows the mind to stand outside itself, creating an objective reality of facts and
data that still represents a complete island in the original psyche. This has the effect of
splitting the wholeness of the mind into rational and intuitive parts. This is not a new
aspect of the human condition, but it does represent an objectification of the mental
process. It is this objectification that represents the true danger. When a schizophrenic
believes that everyone in the world can hear their thoughts, we call it madness.
When the Internet actually turns this condition into reality, we call it commerce.
Love letters, medical records, financial information, social networking blogs, reading
habits and personal preferences of individual users become common knowledge almost
instantly, all over the world. [FL2] Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the
world. If the contents of all my words and actions are available, I have no privacy.
For privacy to be widespread, it must be part of a social contract. McLuhan said that
new technologies exert a gravitational effect on cognition, which in turn affects social
organization. [FL3] Autonomy is still possible, but it must be bought at the price of
internal freedoms and local identities. Culture rests on the limitation of the group.
This is because one aspect of Man is that he is a tribal animal, and seeks the safety
of a group identity as well as safety in numbers. The Internet at its heart is a
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system of mapping, not only of IP addresses and domains, but of users and groups.
Without this underlying system of organization, data packets could not efficiently
find their destination addresses, and no communication would be possble. Yet this
efficient mapping system allows commerce and government to silently collect data
from each IP address and manipulate it fortheir own purposes. Other parties, notably
cyber-criminals, are able to exploit weaknesses in protocols and other mechanisms
built into the structure of the web to steal identities and databases from the other
participants. The very imperfection of the Internet echoes the imperfection of the
world. The menace of loss of privacy leaves us vulnerable and threatens to leave us
bankrupt of Self, and perhaps financially, too. We could of course agree to forego
the speed and convenience of the system in favor of absolute personal control, but
convenience has been sold since WWII as a panacea for all social ills, and is by
now deeply ingrained in our culture. Online identity has no social referent, no history.
Culturally we are in terra incognito, with our destination unknown. Thus it is hard to form
the required social consensus that would strike an acceptable balance between
convenience and safety, as we have, for example with the pharmaceutical drug industry.
In its stead, personal information has become ‘commoditized’, just another product like
fish sticks or lint rollers to be sold for a profit in the market. No one ponders the moral
consequences of selling lint rollers. By extension, personal privacy becomes just as
disposable. Thus the problem of personal privacy is essentially one of syntax.
Faced with the problem of the implosion of world culture into a black hole
of information, our only option is to find a context, a mythos, where we can define
ourselves in relation to the phenomenon of the web as a whole. The Internet is first and
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foremost a conceptual space. This is the business of the collective unconscious, the
reservoir of the experiences of our species. Jung postulated that this collective psyche, as
he called it, is common to everyone and has a better sense of the Self’s ideal than the ego
than the conscious self does. It thus directs the Self, via archetypes, dreams, and intuition,
moving the psyche towards individuation, or self-actualization. [FL4]
Faced with a weightless wavespace where inputs curl upon themselves
and disappear into an electronic void, we need to relate its phenomena and artifacts
to something real and tangible, which includes something of ourselves.
This new world has engendered new creatures, simulacra like Internet advertisers,
who feed on sustained attention. Without the food of user interaction, online advertisers
simply die, or are eaten by others of their kind. Every mouseclick shapes the net.
Gaining ‘eyeballs’ magically transforms electrons into material energy. The brainwave
activity of individual minds is translated directly into ones and zeros in faraway
electronic bank accounts. Focused concentration by millions of users turns photons
and electrons into gold, a feat beyond the dreams of any medieval alchemist.
In order to accomplish this marvelous feat, advertisers must build a model of directed
anticipation. This is the province of so called data miners and data aggregators.
Data mining is the process of sorting through large amounts of data picking out relevant
information. [FL5]. This harvested data is then processed by a data aggregator, an
organization such as Acxiom or ChoicePoint involved in compiling information from
detailed databases on individuals and selling that information to others. [FL6]
The Internet has become a commodity within a decade of the advent of commercial use.
Data is the new gold, a medium of exchange for goods and services.
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At its heart, the Internet is a system of mapping. It is a machine for processing social
interaction. The model for the Internet is one of directed anticipation.
The process of socialization is directly related to exposure to media messages.
Information is thought to produce an accelerated circulation of meaning, [FL3] but we
sense that this is not so. People everywhere complain of ‘information overload’. The
function of media is to create events, not the other way around. No one seems to suffer
from ‘meaning overload’. Increasingly, however, the media defines itself as an extension
of market forces. The Internet user is the product being sold. The ability of the market to
attract viewers to specific locati ns on the Web is not unlike the classic relationship
between bees and flowers. The form of the ‘flower’, its shape, color, scent, and appearance
are designed only for the purpose of creating a specific interaction with its user. In the case
of the Internet, the nectar is information. The actual meaning of the information never
enters the interaction. The information itself is an artifact of the marketing process.
‘Media’ is called media because it mediates between one reality and another. Users are
both subject and objects. As subjects, we are in full possession of our individuality. Our
sense of personal space, of restraint, judgment and desire are tempered by the facts of
experience. As objects, our insecurities about who we are and the incompleteness of our
psyches is ruthlessly manipulated by the most advanced advertising techniques available.
Among these techniques is the ability to construct through data mining and information
aggregation algorithms a digital doppelganger, a limited replica of ourselves that bears a
resemblance to Freud’s ‘Id’. Freud divided the psyche into three parts- the Id, the Ego, and
the Super-ego. The Id was supposed to represent inner desire, that part of ourselves
governed by the pleasure principle. [FL7]
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At a certain point, the real world functions to support the online world. We become like
players in a game of chess, where bits of wood on a piece of patterned cardboard become
extensions of our inner thought processes. The power of Freudian thought was in its
metaphoric simplicity- a few dramatic images stabilized and organized all the data of a
world in flux. Captivity is presented as liberation- we can be our ‘best selves’, but only if
we accept the distorted image presented by the forces of the marketplace. The catch is that
we are required to completely surrender our personal privacy to attain the vision of this
ideal self. Consider the search box on a browser. As a device, it is a direct translation of the
metaphysical idea that a question determines and brings about its own answer.
We see through the prism of our categories. The categories we use are shared. Loss of
meaningful structures of agreement results in loss of the definition of personality itself.
We become willing partners in the process of selling ourselves. Any worldview is a
creative tension between possibility and choice, but consent, as Noam Chomsky pointed
out, can be readily manufactured. [FL8]
In the United States, one of the primary definitions of privacy from the legal standpoint
was provided by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in an article in the Harvard Law
Review in 1890 entitled The Right to Privacy [FN9]. In the first paragraph, the authors state,
“The right to life has come to mean the right to enjoy life- the right to be let alone.”
Later legal scholars such as Roscoe Pound [FN10] and Paul Freund [FN11] attempted to define
privacy as an expression of personhood, a right of an individual to discover their nature as
a human being. Privacy was sometimes seen as a moral freedom to engage in thoughts and
actions, and to decide accordingly. The notion that citizens have a right to regulate information
about themselves in order to define their interactions with other citizens is still common today,
although, as Machiavelli noted in ‘The Prince’, “People are by nature changeable”, and more
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ominously, “Politics have no relation to morals” [FN12]. Professor Ken Gormley in an online
article [FN13] focused on cyber-law notes that US case law has subdivided the topic into about
four areas of legal rights, which although interrelated, vastly complicate the interpretat on of
the basic question, “What is privacy?” These areas include Tort privacy, First Amendment
Privacy (related to the Constitution’s guarantee of Free Speech), Fourth Amendment Privacy
(relating to warrantless searches and seizures), and State Constitutional Privacy.
Further complicating matters is the changing nature of individual privacy, which is subject
to historic traditions, current and past events, changes in society and technology,
and the trade-offs necessary to preserve the concept of Democracy in a dangerous world.
For the moment, the philosophical and moral values of this subject are in flux.
Older interpretations based on anthropology and sociology have been displaced by historical
events focused on the interest of society as a whole, such as the World Trade Center attacks
Many scholars claim that the concept of privacy is unnecessary for life in America.
Privacy is not a right as such. Its stature as a force in society largely rests on moral
and philosophical grounds. Many countries, such as Japan and China, with different
historical perspectives, find comfort in group relations when addressing authorities such as
government. An old Japanese saying is “The nail that sticks up must be hammered down.”
Individuality is seen as a disturbing force in society. America was founded by social and
religious refugees from Europe seeking self expression in the wake of the Protestant
Reformation, the central tenet of which emphasized Man’s individual relationship with God.
[FN15] However, in more secular terms, most functioning democracies require that citizens
surrender certain information in order to maintain a viable administrative record
on such matters as taxes, welfare, census and military eligibility (currently required but
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not in active use). Privacy in these areas is superseded by public interest. At certain
times in our history, such as the threat of terrorists in 2001 and in wartime in general,
a temporary suspension of some aspects of personal privacy is generally considered
to be an acceptable trade-off for the continuation of the institution of Democracy.
The fulcrum point of this trade-off is the issue of Trust in government. Confucius,
the fifth-century BC Chinese scholar and philosopher, stated that “If the people
have no faith in their rulers, there is no standing in the state.”[FN16] However, in
return for granting this trust, certain expectations by citizens must be advanced. An online
article in Wikipedia on “Privacy Law “[FN17] references a document by the Organization for
Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) related to this matter called the
“Fair Information Practice Principles” which underlie the structure of many privacy
laws in democratic states. [FN18]. These are:
There should be a general policy of openness about the practices and policies with respect to
Personal information should be collected only for a stated purpose by lawful and fair means
and with the knowledge or consent of the subject.
The purpose for collecting personal information should be specified at the time of collection.
Further uses should be limited to those purposes.
Personal information should not be used for purposes other than those specified, except for
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consent of the subject or by theauthority of law.
Personal information must be accurate, complete, timely, and relevant to the purpose for which it is
to be used.
Individuals should have the right to inspect and correct their personal information.
Personal information should be protected against such risks as loss, unauthorized access,
destruction, modification, or disclosure.
Someone in an organization should be held accountable for compliance with the organization’s
Note that these principles are applicable in general both to government and commercial
entities. [FN19] This has become a somewhat controversial point in recent years because of
a deliberate US Government policy of outsourcing many of the functions which used
to be the responsibility of the federal government. In particular, so-called data aggregators
have become one of the chief agencies for creating value from personal data. [FN20]
Online forms, loyalty cards, law enforcement data, demographic data, credit card data and other
information is fed into an algorithm which creates a personal profile of all citizens.
This profile is used by both commercial interests for marketing, insurance and financial
appraisals of individuals, and by federal agencies such as the FBI, INS, and IRS in order to
enforce laws and regulations. The lax protection of this data has become a serious problem
for private citizens because criminal elements have begun to practice identity theft, which
in effect robs the individual of their legal selfhood. Given that citizens are mandated
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by law to grant personal information to the government,and that the government then
violates their trust by giving that information to commercial entities in a manner which
imperils the identity and well-being of those citizens, a serious ethical and moral condition
has come to exist. Commercial entities have a different relationship with their customers, but here,
too, the issue of trust is of paramount importance. Computers, communications networks, and
digital information have made personal information readily avaiable on a near-universal basis to
companies. The possibilities for misuse of this information have certainly grown exponentially,
while the ability of individuals to control their own data has developed an inverse relationship to
its availability. The practice of outsourcing has made this information available
worldwide. Tracking public opinion by surveys in order for legislators to remedy the situation
has also become a problem, because the private agencies invo
lved may now have either suspect
motives or write the questions in able to influence the outcome in a way favorable to
lobbyists [FN21]. The more vectors of distribution exist, the more the chances for theft by
organized criminals and hackers online. This illegal activity has now reached the point where
there are regular marketplaces online for buying and selling personal information [FN22].
While a valid credit card number may be purchased for a few dollars, an entire corporate
database only fetches a few hundred dollars. Clearly, the problem has reached critical
The notion of personal privacy is a received aesthetic construction. Beginning
as a child, we self-modify our perceptual worlds in order to achieve perceptual rapport
with the wider world, one that provides food, care, shelter and other requirements of
survival. The need to adapt exists long before the need for autonomy. To take part in a
society, we accept the precepts of that society; privacy is a category of permitted
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behavior. Egalitarianism is repressed in favor of the goal of individual success. This
reflects our history. To give an example, in Europe during WWII, the Nazi’s were able to
use traffic analysis of telephones to identify the networks of people who were able to
maintain views not in conformity with those of National Socialism. Once telephone
numbers were identified, those persons were exterminated. Thus, telephone bills in Europe
do not identify individual numbers, only ‘units’ of calls. The Europeans decided that the
loss of convenience to customers in identifying individual calls was a good tradeoff for
never allowing this heinous behavior to occur again.
Privacy is a self-sustaining idea seeking its own expression, but it is also a nexus, a
nucleus of a lot of other ideas. The question of personal privacy is one of syntax.
The illusion of personal online privacy is at the heart of the Internet experience. Since
the data offered back to the Internet is given without restraint, the value of that data is
greatly enhanced. Personal searches represent unfiltered access to the needs and desires
of specific persons. It remains only to identify and target that person to actuate
marketing strategies. After a time, Internet searches form clusters of information, which
further pinpoint the strategies required to manipulate users. Certain caveats apply-
if the keyboard is used by more than one user, different demographics apply. But in
general, the longer the ‘tail’ of personal search patterns the better the efficiency of
an advertiser’s efforts. The Internet is a cultivated field from which is harvested
sustained attention. It is a system of sympathetic viewing.
On April 22, 2008, in a ruling that supersedes weaker US Supreme Court rulings,
the Supreme Court of New Jersey became first court in the nation to rule that people have
an expectation of privacy when they are online, and that law enforcement officials need a
Grand Jury warrant to gain access to their private information .NJStar Ledger. [FL23]
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It is this kind of case law that ultimately decides the rights of citizens, corporations, and
the government in incorporating such matters as electronic privacy int normal customs
and culture. But it is a slow process, sometimes taking decades before the firm outlines
of a solid legal foundation are in place. We are accustomed to thinking of change as a
rapid process, but this is in some sense a manufactured illusion, designed to sell news.
Real change resembles punctuated equilibrium, with the inculcation of generations.
Our presidential candidates have only shifted from being of the WWII generation to
the Vietnam generation. A twenty year old lieutenant in Iraq might expect to campaign
for the top job in the Executive branch of Government sometime in 2040. By then, of
course, the technological successors to the Internet will make these kinds of economic
and moral decisions seem simplistic. The Internet may be located inside our
skulls, which would sharpen the debate betweenwhere the rights of the inner person
and those who wish to manipulate those rights to the physical boundaries of ourselves.
We cannot live in the past, and the future is unknowable. The uncertainties and
complexities of any culture are in the here and now. I have tried to the best of my small
abilities to present some ideas for the elucidation of whoever may choose to read them.
My goal is to leave the world a better place than I found it. That is all one person can do.
FL1 Victor Hugo, “Histoire d’un crime” quote from
FL2 Schneier, Bruce and Banisar, David. (1997). The Electronic Privacy Papers.
New York: John Wiley and Sons.
FL3 Baudrillard, Jean. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of
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FL5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Data_mining
FL8 Chomsky, Noam. (2002). Manufacturing Consent. New York: Pantheon Books
FL9 Warren, Samuel D. and Brandeis, Louis D. (1890). The Right to Privacy.
Harvard Law Review 193.
FL10 Pound, Roscoe. (1921). The Spirit of the Common Law. Tucson: Marshall Jones.
FL11 Freund, Paul A. (May 23, 1975). Address to the American Law Institute.
Quoted in A.L.I. Proceedings 574-5.
FL12 Machiavelli, Niccolo. (2008). The Prince. New York: Random House.
FL14 Mead, Margaret. (1930). Growing Up in New Guinea. New York: Penguin.
FL16 Confucius and Lau, D.C. (1998). The Analects of Confucius. New York: Penguin.