TOPIC GUIDE: Privacy Online

"We should not expect our online activities to remain private"

PUBLISHED: 30 Aug 2010

AUTHOR: Dolan Cummings

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We use the internet for an increasing variety of purposes: reading news; paying bills; sharing photos; watching television and much more. And not only do our own computers record information about all of these activities, but we leave a trail on other computers too [Ref: Wikipedia]. Much of the time we don’t even think about this and imagine that what we do online is our own business. But this information trail can have a number of important consequences. First of all, if we are careless with sensitive information like credit card numbers, we can suffer fraud or even identity theft [Ref: Identitiy Theft]. Similarly, any pictures or comments we post on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook can all too easily end up being seen by people we’d rather not see them [Ref: All Facebook]. Even if we are careful with our privacy settings and deal only with reputable websites and companies, information about our activities is out of our control. Social networking sites actually own the information posted by users, while internet service providers and search engines routinely gather information for commercial purposes [Ref:]. Debates continue to rage about the scope of Google’s data collection; from the launch of its Street View service in 2009 [Ref: Guardian], to the recent revelations that the Street View cars had mistakenly gathered personal data from Wi-Fi in the areas they were photographing [Ref: Independent]. Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, has gone so far as to suggest that so much personal information is left on the internet that many people will one day be forced to change their names in order to escape their cyber past [Ref: Independent].

If we use the internet at work or school the management is generally entitled to monitor what we look at [Ref: Privacy Rights Clearinghouse]. And governments can require internet service providers to hand over information about individuals’ internet use if they believe they are involved in crime, not least terrorism. The UK government recently created a new unit, the Communications Capabilities Directorate, to implement the controversial Interception Modernisation Programme, maintaining huge databases of people’s online activity [Ref: The Register]. Many internet users are therefore concerned that both private companies and governments gather far too much information about our online activities. Privacy advocates and campaigners argue that we should not give up lightly on the idea that we retain control of who knows what about our online activities [Ref: Privacy International].

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What are the arguments in the online privacy debate?
Secure software systems mean it is now generally safe to make financial transactions online, whether buying books or selling shares, while encryption and other security software is available for those with particular privacy concerns [Ref: Wikipedia]. But the question of whether we should expect privacy is not merely a technical one. Those who argue that online privacy is unrealistic believe that the very nature of how we use the internet today makes old-fashioned privacy concerns irrelevant or even undesirable [Ref: Guardian]. Irrelevant because the internet is all about sharing, not concealing – and if we are really concerned about keeping something private, we shouldn’t put it online in the first place [Ref:]. It is also considered undesirable because the benefits of privacy are outweighed by those of convenience [Ref: Visual Revenue] and security [Ref:] if we trust internet companies and government agencies with our information. Privacy advocates counter that whatever the technical difficulties, people are entitled to use the internet without surrendering personal information to private companies or governments, however benign [Ref: Wired]. The philosopher Julian Baggini suggests that the ‘willing surrender of privacy’ online raises fundamental questions about the meaning of autonomy and individuality in today’s world [Ref: Independent]. Controversies about whether internet companies should collaborate with the authoritarian regime in China, meanwhile, remind us that there can be a dark side to state supervision [Ref:].

Trading privacy for convenience?
There are undoubtedly benefits to surrendering a degree of privacy online, for example, by accepting tracking ‘cookies’ from websites we visit [Ref: Visual Revenue]. If we trust internet companies with our address and credit card details, we can pay for books, flights and other services at the click of a mouse. Users of social networking sites get to use these sophisticated applications free of charge to stay in touch with friends, share articles and pictures and chat online [Ref: Social Networking]. While some people object to companies retaining information about things they read and buy online, others like the fact that web applications can then tailor adverts to their interests rather than annoying them with a scattergun approach [Ref: e-Web Marketing]. There is also the potential for greater speed and efficiency in everything from paying tax to accessing health services if we allow the relevant agencies to store and share information about us. More generally, some argue that the culture is simply changing, and that, in the words of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, ‘privacy is no longer a social norm’, [Ref: Guardian] especially for younger people who have grown up with the internet and are much more comfortable sharing pictures and so on [Ref: Wired]. On the downside, the more personal information we share online, the greater the chance it will be abused by criminals or unscrupulous companies. Critics argue that any move away from valuing privacy is a worrying cultural trend, since a degree of privacy is essential both to civil liberties and personal well-being, and that young people do value privacy even if they behave differently from older generations [Ref: NPR].

Trading privacy for security?
There have long been concerns that the internet can be used by terrorist groups to recruit new members, raise money and plan attacks, and some argue this means we must be prepared to sacrifice some privacy [Ref: Daily Mail]. Security agencies have even been monitoring applications like Second Life for signs of terrorist activity. A paper by the US government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity group argued that, ‘What started out as a benign environment where people would congregate to share information or explore fantasy worlds is now offering the opportunity for religious/political extremists to recruit, rehearse, transfer money, and ultimately engage in information warfare or worse with impunity’ [Ref: Washington Post]. In this context, it is argued that we should all be willing to give up a little privacy so that security agencies can keep an eye on suspicious online behaviour. The controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act (2000) in the UK [Ref: Guardian], and the Patriot Act (2001) in the USA, have given the state much wider surveillance powers, with considerable implications for online privacy [Ref: Electronic Privacy Information Centre]. Critics counter that the scope for terrorist activity online is overblown, and little more than an excuse for governments to snoop on ordinary citizens. Juan Cole argues in Salon that, ‘Any monitoring by law enforcement of innocuous activity and communication in a virtual world, conducted broadly and without oversight, would be unconstitutional and could invade the privacy of millions of persons. I found no evidence based on my own observations that a virtual world is suitable for planning a terror operation’ [Ref: Salon].

So does privacy still matter?
Despite the purported benefits of giving up a degree of privacy, many internet users remain instinctively hostile to the idea that companies and government agencies can track their online activities. They point out that just because the internet makes it easier to store and share data, that doesn’t mean we have to go along with it. If we do accept it, it should be because we are convinced of the benefits. Telecoms expert Norman Lewis suggests what really matters is trust: if we genuinely trust companies with our data, that is very different from if they just assume we do [Ref: Battle of Ideas]. An important question, then, is whether we are asked to opt into a system in which our data will be stored our shared so we can reap benefits, or whether companies simply go ahead and do it for their own benefit. Similarly, privacy advocates protest that governments have not convinced them of the need to compromise privacy for national security [Ref: Salon]. Even if surrendering it would help the security services, they argue privacy remains an important consideration in itself. While the age-old argument against privacy is that ‘if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear’, critics like law professor John Fitzpatrick argue that in a free society we all have the right to keep secrets [Ref: Institute of Ideas]. Just as the privacy of the voting booth is essential to democratic elections, a wider private sphere within which to think, debate and reflect beyond prying eyes is essential to democracy more generally. Like other civil libertarians, security technologist Bruce Schneier argues the real choice is not between privacy and security but liberty versus control, because if we are constantly under surveillance, we are constantly fearful and self-conscious, and not able to act freely [Ref: Wired]. So while it might be difficult to maintain an expectation of privacy in a wired world, some believe we must do everything in our power not to abandon it [Ref: Liberty].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Opinion: Nothing New About Privacy Fears

Carolyn Homer AOL News 19 August 2010

Privacy is over. Here comes sociality.

Tim Leberecht cnet news 19 January 2010


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


IoI Christmas Lecture 2009

Academy of Ideas 15 December 2009

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