Computer with an Eye in the Screen

Violations of Privacy

Today’s war on privacy is intimately related to the dramatic advances in technology we’ve seen in recent years” (Gurfinkel, 2001, p. 5). Advocates of privacy warn that the conflation of the disregard of the general populace and unrestricted technology seriously threatens individual privacy (Marshall, 2001).  Whether you use the or not, whether you are aware of the or not, they are out there. We have become a surveillance society


What technology are you referring to? 

Consider the Internet and computers for one. “Each time you log in to the Internet you are involved in a much broader information exchange than most people realize” (Lyon, 2002, p. 345).  According to a 1998 report by the Federal Trade Commission, approximately 98% of websites collect personal information (Masci, 1998). What do websites do with this information? What’s a good question as only 14% of the websites that do harvest information reveal the whom and why regarding the collection (Masci, 1998). Geocities was accused of just this by the FTC in 1998. In exchange for personal information, this company offered free emails. Geocities then sold this web data, the information amassed, without consent to advertisement companies (Masci, 1998).


 In fact, data sharing is still a rampant practice among corporations (Marshall, 2001). But what happens when your medical information is shared with you potential insurer? Or when your finances are shared with your potential employer?


What happens on the net doesn’t stay on the net. Run a quick search on your computer for cookies. Unless you cleaned them out recently, you probably found a lot. Cookies are “self-contained bits of computer code that are employed by websites as markers or tokens of identifying information” (Campbell & Carlson, p. 598, 2002). While these codes may be used to keep track of things such as personal preferences or items in an on-line shopping cart, they can also be used to stalk someone online. How would you like your on-line visits to websites tracked?


But databases of consumer information are not the only thing involved.


Under the Patriot Act of 2001, the government significantly expanded its authority in regards to electronic surveillance (Henderson, 2002). One of the chief complaints is that the government can investigate anything that is considered “significant.” The problem here is that there is no substantive meaning of the term significant –“the government might uses its newly expanded authority with insufficient discretion” (Henderson, 2002, p. 189). Privacy advocates provide two main reasons the Patriot Act needs to be balanced. The first is that it is not easier to obtain foreign intelligence, under the also expanded Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA (Henderson, 2002). This raises the prosecution of nonterrorists mistakenly identified as terrorists. The second issue is that FISA also allows for the surveillance of innocent conversation in the name of security (Henderson, 2002). This surveillance can and will involve U.S. people. However, it should be noted that the Patriot Act does provide some privacy protection. These include disciplinary actions against government officials who use surveillance information improperly as well as the ability for computer owners to have legal powers against computer trespassing (Henderson). Unfortunately, in the big picture of this act, those two concessions to privacy are mere token gestures to the overall potential of invasion.


The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Carnivore is one such program that was supported by the Patriot Act. This powerful surveillance tool allowed the FBI to prowl around people’s communications on the Internet including transmissions such as e-mails, chat rooms, and instant messages (Marshall, 2001). Carnivore was a packet snifter –a program that can see all the information passing through its network (Marshall, 2001).  “Carnivore gives the FBI access to all of the traffic over an Internet service-provider’s network, and asks us to trust the government’s filters to identify communications from a specified target” (Marshall, 2001). In case you missed it, the key word is trust. Do you completely trust the government? Carnivore was retired early this year. 


Well, at least you are safe at work.

Or are you? Who said your employers grant you privacy? We’ve all heard the little caveat during calls to consumer call in-centers about the conversation being potentially monitored. This is about monitoring their employees. “Eavesdropping has become industrialized” (Gumnpert & Drucker, 2001, p. 121). According to the American Management Association, “seventy-eight percent of major U.S. corporations use at least one technique to monitor employees’ on-the-job phone calls, e-mail, Internet use, and computer files, without notice” (Marshall, 2001, p. 508). Some even hire outside investigators to collect the information. There are few laws that address this issue.

Feeling paranoid yet?

Well, if you don’t, you may after reading this. Have you ever been in front of a camera? Have you ever been in front of a camera without knowing it? Surveillance cameras are increasingly become prominent in publicly and privately owned spaces (Gumpert & Ducker). Government agencies in the United States are able to take soundless video of still camera shots of individuals in public without a search warrant (Marshall, 2001).  “Most, if not all, urban centers in the United States utilize closed-circuit television in public areas for surveillance purposes” (Gumpert & Ducker, 2001, p. 122). San Francisco has cameras in every subway car while New York has over 200 cameras throughout the various sections of Manhattan (Gumpert & Ducker, 2001). These cameras may or may not be connected to computers with software databases that enable license plate or face recognition.


Face recognition falls under biometrics. Even the Super Bowl has made use of biometric technology to scan the crowd as they passed through turnstiles. During the 2001 Super Bowl, 100,000 fans were surveyed in the Tampa stadium (Marshall, 2001). This is also often employed in technology to catch known cheating gamblers (Marshall, 2001). The United States also has plans to start issuing biometric passports with “embedded personal and face-recognition data” (Brandt, 2005, p. 39). However, early tests reveal that such passports put personal information at risk. Personal data is stored in unencrypted form meaning that potentially your information could be collected by someone with the necessary technology (Brandt, 2005).


What’s the latest? 

By late this year, x-ray machines will be in use in airports. But these controversial machines are controversial because it will give screener’s a clear picture of what is underneath someone’s clothes (Frank, 2005). These “machines bounce low-radiation X-rays off a person's skin to produce photo-like computer images of metal, plastic and organic materials hidden under clothes” (Frank, 2005). While this may be a valuable step in security, where does it leave privacy? Would you want someone seeing what’s under your clothes? Privacy advocates have termed these machines as a virtual strip search.

…And these were just some of the technologies that can affect privacy.


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