Privacy and the "Transparent" Individual

EN: The "abstract" presents a mishmash of topics for this chapter, but the core theme seems to be a "new conception of privacy" and specifically addresses the topic of anonymity.


Information on the Internet is stored on public servers, passes unencrypted across public wires, and every system keeps track of the data requests that enable every action and every datum to be tracked back to an individual IP address, an individual login account, and an individual person.

It never was private or anonymous, though individuals assumed it to be so, and now are making demands to protect their right to a degree of privacy and anonymity that never existed, and that is difficult to effect in a medium designed for open exchange of information.


Internet and Privacy: Old Threats in New Clothes

The internet was designed, with complete naivete, as a medium for the open exchange of information among scholars, and the current concerns were not considered - namely, the loss of control over personal information, disclosure of private facts, and the surveillance of the individual. It was not until the intrusion into this network of the commercial and government entities that there was any need for data security at all: the desire to protect sensitive information against prying eyes, and the desire to be able to provide personal information, but in a manner that safeguards it against any but the intended audience, and further to restrict the use of the data that was communicated by an individual. Nevertheless, privacy is a current concern, and a demand being placed upon the medium.

And so, the current "threats" posed by the Internet are not new, but are merely a matter of awareness of the open nature of the medium - both in the sense of the user who mistook it for a private channel and in the sense of the individual who sought to exploit this openness for sinister purposes.

The author goes into a bit more detail about the ways in which the open nature of the Internet is being exploited (server logs, clickstream data, cookies, e-mail bugs, url-path data, etc.) - I'm skipping that.

Risks to the Autonomy and Freedom of the Individual

The loss of control over personal information and its misuse by others is unique to the information era, though it predated the internet itself. As soon as computer technology was employed by business and government, it was used to gather an analyze data about individuals, often without their consent.

The author makes a case that these phenomena are threats to the freedom and autonomy of the individual, as surveillance is a tool of totalitarian government. Orwell. Not only can this information be abused to dominate or control the individual, but the very knowledge that it is being collected is inhibitive to free action. He lays it on quite thick, so I'm skipping much of his polemic.

Transparency of Information vs. Protection of Privacy

The author extols the Internet as a medium that supports the free flow of ideas an opinions, and to make information accessible, as opposed to systems in which information is rigidly controlled and withheld.

However, this is immediately in conflict with the need for privacy of information - especially in situations where information about a person is published for the scrutiny of others without their consent.

There are also instances where the ability to speak anonymously is a value (a person in an oppressive country might be punished of speaking against politicians) or a detriment (the ability of someone to make false accusations under cover of anonymity).


The 'Right to Privacy'

From a philosophical perspective, an individual's "right" exists by nature, and law can merely refrain from obstructing the individual's exercise of that right. The word "right" is also construed in the context of an affordance created by law (EN: I would define the latter as privilege, not right).

The right to publish information is a natural right - anyone who has the means (to speak, to print, to access the Internet) has a "right" to publish information - there is nothing that law need to do enable a person from communicating to others; it can only refrain from interfering. The right to record information is likewise a natural right. No process of law is necessary to enable an individual to record what he observes, be it on paper or in a database.

The right to prevent information from being recorded or published is a "right" of the second category. This right does not exist by virtue of nature, but it requires an act of law to punish, through process of criminal or civil law, those who would publish this information.

And the right to privacy is, in effect, a right of the latter category. Except in instances where obtaining the information entails a breach of property, the desire to prevent others from recording or disseminating information about you requires the backing of law to prevent, by threat, actions which they are capable of doing by nature.

It is very similar, in this way, to the concept of intellectual property: an act of government is necessary to afford the protection of copyright, trademark, or patent.

With a the exceptions, personal privacy did not become an issue until recently, as a result of technological advances that facilitate the collection, storage, and publication of information, that liberated the information from the physical media used to store it, and provided a convenient way for it to be republished. The laws in place to protect the security of physical documents in a physical location are woefully inadequate to protect digital information in a virtual location.

Conceptualizing Privacy as Anonymity

Anonymity in communication, itself, is a natural right that is the creation of technology, albeit much older technology (ink and paper, printing presses), which enabled an individual to communicate without disclosing their own identity. There are legal precedents for protecting anonymity to "protect individuals from retaliation, and their ideas from suppression, at the hand of an intolerant society" (SCOTUS McIntyre v. Ohio)

However, anonymity can also be misused, as a shield for those who would libel or slander others without taking personal responsibility for their actions, as a method of protecting hate-mongering, tactical communications for criminal purposes, the ability to harass or threaten others, the bility to publish harmful disinformation, etc.

While anonymity has value in communications media, it is not entirely analogous to privacy. It is not the suppression of the information itself, but merely the dissociation of the information from its source.

Anonymity on the Internet can be achieved with the aid of technology (anonymous mailers, proxy servers, and the like), and it can also be hindered by it (requiring a user to create an account means they cannot use a service anonymously).

The author also mentions password protection and encryption as an aid to anonymity - but I believe he's mistaken about that: these technologies enhance privacy of information (guarding it against unauthorized access) rather than anonymity (divorcing message from speaker).

In addition to all of this, anonymity is seen as a defense of privacy: by disguising one's identity, you from commercial and government surveillance, to avoid their attempts to compile a dossier or to discriminate against a person whose online speech discloses information that could be used to harass or discriminate against them (religious or political beliefs, ethnicity or age, health conditions, lifestyle choices, etc.)

Do We Have to Protect Privacy in Internet?

The author asserts that privacy must be protected because "the public and social realm cannot exist without protecting individuality, privacy, and freedom." However, he makes this statement as axiomatic, the describes "architectures" that must be in place to preserve privacy.

A criminal law architecture would require the adoption of legislative and constitutional protection of an individual's privacy as a civil right. He discusses the EU resolution (detailed in previous chapters), but is critical of it in that it overlooks a significant fact: what endangers privacy the most on the Internet is not a matter of isolated actions, but a systematic approach to compiling information, even if it is done without the intent of infringing on privacy.

A civil law architecture would require the classification of personal information as personal property, giving the individual the right to control the access granted to others, and to have the control over the conditions under which they may use the information granted them. This requires organizations (particularly companies) to enter into a contractual agreement with individuals in order to have possession of their personal information.


Reiterated: the Internet has been a boon to freedom in enabling transparency of information and providing a platform for free speech, but has also brought with it the danger of surveillance and retribution, and that care must be taken to preserve the first, prevent the second, and mitigate between the interests of the individual and society.