I recently attended a talk.  “Identifying Ethical Issues of Emerging ICT Applications”, it was called. Although not solely based on the issue of privacy, it was the area which I felt most heated about and what better place to vent then through blogging…

I am going to break the mould a little and present a fully contextualized discussion on “privacy.” I do apologies if it seems like I have just swallowed a George Orwell book and am regurgitating back talk of Big Brother watching us and the like. This is a long one, but I’ve tried my best to make it as scan able as possible. So, join me…sit down, strap yourself in…and enjoy the ride!

Definition   “isolation, seclusion or freedom from unauthorized oversight or observation.” It is a persons Right to solitude and freedom from prying public eyes.

There are 3 aspects of privacy:

  • Freedom from Intrusion
  • Control of information about ones’ self
  • Freedom from Surveillance

Introduction  Privacy in the IT world has fast become a much debated topic. In a recent media article (silicon republic) “No Place to Hide” (by J. Norman) two interesting and debatable questions where raised.

1.)    Are we witnessing the erosion of the demarcation of public and private spaces brought on by the network economy and new technology?

2.)    What roles do Government, Industry, and Citizens play in privacy issues?

The article concluded that it is impossible for users to expect privacy, as full privacy is an elusive concept.

Sherry Turckle of MIT, has produced works which have highlighted the evolving relationships between Online Privacy and Democracy as well as Privacy and Intimacy.

Privacy and Society     The fabric of human society is based upon cooperation and dependencies amongst people. Whenever one person talks to another, he/she unknowingly reveals a certain amount of personal information e.g. physical features, personality, character etc. It is impossible and unavoidable, to hide this information.

Most of us take privacy in “normal” life for granted. Achieving the same level of privacy in the “online” environment is less accepted. The natural progression of the internet and emerging technologies is towards streamlining our lives, both personally and professionally. (It can be argued that this is facilitating the “blurring of the lines” between work and leisure time continuums.) Instantaneous communications and available on-line services continue to reduce the physical distance between individuals. Almost everything is now available in cyberspace (shopping, schooling, banking etc.) As IT technologies continue to play an integral part in day to day lives, there is an inextricable link to “privacy.”

Assumption         We value Privacy. “Brittanica” studies indicate that 81% citizens are concerned with online privacy.

Counterargument   Mark Zuckerberg (CEO Facebook) believes the evolution of user generated social media and specifically networks, illustrate a diminishing desire for privacy.

“That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

This is complemented by Steve Rambon’s (Industry Executive) quote in a BBC interview… “privacy is dead… get over it”

Note     Facebook have recently changed their privacy policy. Zuckerberg has been accused of acting to meet corporate pressures at user’s privacy expense. (Marketing aspects will be discussed further in a later section but… put simply… the more “public” a website is, the more advertisements are seen, the more user information is gathered, which ultimately translates to a higher stock value.

“Privacy is a vector around which Facebook operates”  MZ 2007

“Change towards a public Facebook is good for World Peace” MZ 2010

International  The concern about privacy is increasingly becoming an issue of international dispute. Citizens are becoming concerned that the most intimate details of daily lives are being:

  • Monitored
  • Searched
  • Recorded

Many Countries have developed privacy policies and Laws. However, universal enforcement is complicated as the internet is not restricted to any one country, it’s worldwide. Therefore concerns arise regarding the compatibility of various countries privacy policies.

Privacy Paradox  a 2005 “Pew Internet Survey” showed:

  • 54% believe that websites which track behaviour are invading privacy.
  • 85% disapproved of websites displaying advertisements based on web history

The same study showed contradictory behaviour:

  • 63% would give up personal information to gain access to a website

Google, who store search data, including IP addresses for up to 18 months, to hone focused advertising, are market leaders. This demonstrates the complexities of user behaviour and their perplexities on privacy.

In 2009, ASK.com (Google competitor) introduced “askeraser” – a unique feature which “claimed” to tackle the above mentioned search engine privacy issues. Surprisingly, after its launch the company saw little uptake, still hovering around 3% of marketshare (in United States.)

While ASK.com was trying to meet public demand, it negated any prior assumptions that people would be willing to switch search engines on the mere basis of enhanced privacy.

Web users’ complex attitude towards privacy is evidence of what I call – “the privacy paradox.” Consumers express concern, but engage in few privacy-protecting activities.

Furthermore, when considering the article “Information Technology, Privacy and the Public Good” (McGrohan 1989) he discussed the possible reduction in willingness of the public to respond to survey requests. So if as he suggests the public has become less willing to reply to such surveys why are they so willing to place vast amounts of personal information about themselves online?


Cookies, Spyware, Phishing and ID Theft    The proliferation of personal data presents a variety of risks for individuals, such as identify theft, stalking, embarrassment, and blackmail. I have selected four prominent subjects below:

Cookies – packets of data, created and stored in users harddrives, in response to web page instructions. Allows the pinpointing of behavioural activity. They can track eg : username/password details, websites visited, behavioural features: how long spent on each page etc.

Spyware – type of malware which is installed on computer equipment. It collects information without users knowledge or consent.

Phishing – criminally fraudulent process of attempting to acquire sensitive information, such as credit card details. It is an example of the close link between security and privacy are. E.g. Ebay attack through the use of social engineering.

ID Theft – a form of fraud in which someone pretends to be someone else by assuming that person’s identity, typically in order to access resources or obtain credit and other benefits in that person’s name.


Marketing V’s Privacy, the ethical dimension Companies without a sense of ethics could sell addresses to offline marketers. E.g. AOL scandal, although no names published, just IPs.

AMA code of ethics – “information collected from customers should be confidential and used only for expressed purposes.” However even large companies, such as; DoubleClick, Google, AOL, Facebook have fallen foul of this code, pursuing instead, potential corporate gains.

Privacy Wars  “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It seems that all great icons eventually become figures of distrust at some point.

Google’s tag of “not evil” is becoming questionable, in the eyes of many. Having emerged from the scandal which highlighted poor privacy practises (disclosing Gmail contacts to the Google Buzz/Google Wave platforms) their latest misspractise relates to Google Maps. Their street view cars where picking up information from open WiFi systems as they drove through towns and cities.

Facebook is market leader in the social networks space, but their privacy policies have shown up some cracks in their perceived invincibility. Many commentators felt that with their dominance and the switching “costs” of moving to another social network, that Facebook would survive the changing of privacy policy relatively unscathed. This was not the case. Many have deleted accounts and much bad PR has been the result.

Although it should be noted that overall, the site is still acquiring users at an unprecedented rate. (see aforementioned “privacy paradox.”)

The fact is that websites e.g. Google seek personal information as it helps them sell targeted advertising. The pressure for sites such as Facebook to follow Google’s footsteps in building an advertising empire must be severe. Any future potential to float the company will likely dependent on it.

Web 3.0, RFID and GPS  Moving into the Web3.0 era and beyond, the threat to privacy is a very real one. Innovations in the Semantic web and the evolving “network of things” could mean that customers are more open to invasions of privacy.

Take for example Radio Frequency ID tagging (RFID.) The addition of RFID tags on all types of goods, even FMCG goods, will likely become reality. (And maybe even currency.) This will feed key behaviouristic information back through the value chain.

Satellite (Global Positioning Systems / GPS) may be used my law enforcement and insurance companies to pinpoint driving behaviours. Perhaps, GPS technology will even allow for geographically tailored in car radio advertisements.

Conclusion  As illustrated, the issue of Privacy is one of hastening significance.

The internet allows people to share, not only music, photos and ideas, it also allows them to be upset altogether… Think about it!