The Internet and Ethical Debate on Information Privacy

The main ethical concern that the Internet poses on information is its manipulation, accessibility or inaccessibility. It facilitates simultaneous and wider access to information, some of which is not expected to be available to the publicly. The Internet can also exclude certain people from accessing to information or knowledge about the spreading of information through the use of passwords or tools unknown to them. The contribution of the Internet in information manipulation is in the form of its information integration facilitation. The manipulation is achieved through merging of documents and addresses, repackaging through translation of textual and graphical formats and combining the information from various sources for use in unintended activities.

Since it’s reborn, the Internet has posed a number of challenges in the social arena. Users have directed great attention to the privacy issues and concerns involving its use. The debate on information privacy on the Internet is associated with the introduction of information and communication technologies that predate the Internet. There are two tools and techniques that have resulted in Internet related privacy issues. Such tools are cookies and search engines, which determine two classes of information privacy concerns (Elizabeth and Michael, 2012). The classifications of the concerns are Internet-specific concerns and Internet-enhanced concerns. The most significant issues the Internet use has raised on information privacy is the impacts certain Internet activities pose for the public as compared to the private nature of personal information. Internet-specific information privacy concerns are caused by utilization of search engine tools. On the other hand, Internet-enhanced information privacy concerns are caused by utilization of data mining technology. The two techniques have raised a heightened ethical debate over the nature of personal information accessible on the Internet, whether it should be private or public.

Current study interprets the network as a global information infrastructure, different from privately owned computer networks. Some private networks include Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs), Local Area Networks (LANs) and Wide Area Networks (WANs). No individual or nation owns the Internet (Chenoweth, 2006). The Internet can be considered to be a storehouse for all information connected to its servers and databases. In this sense, the Internet has a characteristic of an entity. It can also be considered as a medium through which one can access the information stored in connected servers or databases.

Information privacy can be defined as the people’s interests in protecting activities and facts related to personal data, space or property and keeping them free from interference by other people. Privacy, from this perspective, is the culmination of facts and information which applies to an individual in a state of isolation. Such definition can generate four different categories of private information. Private communications are the first category. It relates to the entirety of personal communication that a person wishes to keep to himself. A good example involves the exchange of information between the user and a professional in a reference interview. Privacy of the body is the second category of private information. It concerns medical information and, in most democratic countries, the right to privacy of such information is conferred by the constitution. For example (Benjamin, 1991), the constitution may state the right a person has in obtaining information about the nature and implications of illness and the right to privacy about it. Making such information public without the consent of the concerned person is illegal. The third category is personal information, which is specific to a particular person. An example is the financial information, name and address of an individual. The last category is information about a person’s possessions. The law also guards it in the form of property rights. A person exercises control over such information, for example, the information about bank account numbers. Trade secrets also lie within this category. Given the two perspectives of the Internet and the definition of information privacy, we can consider the implications the Internet poses on information privacy by examining the threats it causes by the public accessing of such data.

The contribution of the Internet to the ethical debate on information privacy may be viewed from two perspectives. The Internet has caused the existing privacy threats occur more frequently and in a larger scale than they occurred in pre-Internet technologies. Regarding such kind of information, privacy issues do not originate from the Internet; it enhances their occurrence, giving the name Internet-enhanced privacy threats. Secondly, certain tools that only apply to the Internet enable specific information privacy threats, which earlier information and communication technologies could not support (Herman. 19 April 2000). Since the second privacy concerns originate with the Internet, they are known as Internet specific privacy threats.

Internet-Enhanced Information Privacy Threats

They are concerns that originated from the pre-Internet information communication technologies, but have been expedited by the Internet. They can further be classified into two activities. The first one is data surveillance and data gathering, while the second one is data exchange and data mining. The access to information and information privacy were the manger challenges facing the introduction of the Internet. Since such challenges were never addressed in the onset, the utilization of the Internet has escalated the basis of the issues. There are different ways in which the collected data is manipulated without the consent of the user. As a channel and medium of communication, the World Wide Web induced more ways of making the manipulations prevalent. A proper evaluation of the two practical ways reveals a number of threats posed to the information age through the availability of the Internet.

Data Surveillance and Data Gathering

Data surveillance is the systematic use of the Internet to monitor the communications and actions of people without their knowledge (Klosek, 2000). Due to the fact that the Internet is capable of recording data, it can enable people to monitor the data of other individuals, posing as a threat to the information privacy. Such incidences were not possible in the pre-Internet period. Surveillance concerns have increased with certain techniques and tools of the Internet. The explosion of information possible due to the presence of the World Wide Web makes such technique smooth and a simple undertaking. People share information that has no restrictions on the availability. Therefore, since other individuals are always browsing the Internet in the quest for knowledge, they acquire information that threatens the privacy of information itself. Therefore, the tactics and means of exploiting the available information are procedurally acquired through the Internet. Since there lacks a universal body or law that governs the online presence with mandatory requirements and rules, the acquisition, dissemination and distribution of information across borders and different groups are acquired. There are different web servers that are located across the globe and the lack of proper regulation makes it impossible to determine which sites are safe and reliable.

In the past, surveillance was only preserved to strong and centralized governments who could monitor the activities of targeted citizens. In the present day, the threat of surveillance does not come from the government but from corporations and businesses in the private sector. Such stakeholders keep information about regular visitors to their websites, determine the frequency with which the people visit and hypothesize the preferences of the visitors based on the sites they access. The presence of open source application programming interfaces (APIs) makes it inevitable to incorporate tracking mechanisms in a website (Stevens, 2012). The main purpose of acquiring the information based on location is to enable the business tailor products and services for a certain market niche. However, such information is stored in the company’s servers. One of the challenges that follow is the security of user’s data. Absolute security cannot be attained in the information explosion age. Case has been cited where information servers and databases have been hacked even by 11 year olds child. Therefore, the challenge of safe keeping of sensitive information becomes a major concern.

Information about Internet users can be accessed from the activities they perform on their computers when they are online. One method of gathering information is the web forms, in which the web visitor voluntarily enters the information, such as address and username, on the Internet (Elizabeth and Michael, 2012). Such information can reveal the order of pages the user browses in a particular website. As the online users enter their personal information, they do not suspect that the websites are controversial. Another method of obtaining personal information is by use of Internet server log files. The method works because web browsers transmit data to a web server concerning the Internet address of the computer system the visitor uses. In addition, the brand name and version number of the operating system software and web browser of the user. Such methods can be used to pose threats to the information privacy of the users. Comment by Kosynskyi Mykola: Main verb is missing

Data Exchange and Data Mining

The techniques of data gathering and surveillance explained above monitor and record the activities of the Internet users. Additionally, certain Internet tools are used to exchange personal data of individuals on the Internet without their consent. The commercial online entrepreneurs sale personal data of individuals to third parties, drawing a lot of profits. The techniques involved include matching and merging electronic records stored in the databases (Andrews, 2012). Such activities occur without the knowledge of the users whose information is exchanged. The debate about the privacy of information being exchanged has led to the formulation of laws and principles aimed at addressing the exchange of personal information across computer networks and on the Internet.

Another method of extracting personal information is the data mining technology. It is a set of automated techniques involved in the extraction of previously unknown information from large databases. It combines the techniques of pattern recognition and artificial intelligence. The technology unearths patterns and relationships previously unknown and use the facts obtained to trace personal data. The method uses data mining algorithms to record pieces of data about the activities of online users. The information can be combined to construct an individual’s profile. Such information helps tracking an individual data, since the private information including location can be discovered. The data mining method clearly raises privacy issues to the information on the Internet. Using such techniques, the organization acquiring the data does not need physical presence of the user as a replica profile can be enacted based on the browsing behavior and online activities. Therefore, identifying an individual virtually becomes possible.

Internet-Specific Information Privacy Threats

These are information privacy concerns that we can implicate to the tools provided by the Internet. Two types of Internet tools generate the information privacy concerns. First are cookies that facilitate obtaining of personal information from certain website visitors. The second are Internet search engines, which locate personal information through the Internet (Klosek, 2000). Currently there are numerous search engines around the globe that can be used to acquire information.

Internet Cookies

Web-site owners use such technique to store and retrieve data about visitors of their web sites, without consent or knowledge of the user (Sipior et al. 2011). The tool captures information about the online browsing preferences of a certain website user and then stores the information on a file on the storage drive of the user’s computer. The information is retrieved from the system of the user and redirected to a website when a user accesses it again. The owners of websites and online businesses argue that cookies provide users with a list of preferences for frequent visitors of the particular websites. Most users indicate that their main concern is providing users’ information to unintended persons when they visit the websites rather than gaining lists of preferences for the sites they frequently visit. Privacy advocates also argue that taking into account that the cookies monitor and record the activities of a user while visiting web sites and later downloading the information to his computer system without his knowledge and consent, the technology is a threat to information privacy.

Internet Search Engines

The Internet supports techniques that facilitate dissemination of information about individuals. The automated Internet search engines allow the accessibility of information about persons that was previously impossible to cross-reference (Tene, n.d.). When the user wants to retrieve information about a certain individual, he enters the name in the entry box of the search engine. Most of the information about the people already entered in the program and can be easily retrieved. The individuals, whose information can be accessed by other people, may be oblivious of their name being found in the search engine database or the existence of the search engines and their ability to provide data about individuals. Their potential to make private information accessible to the public has raised debates on privacy concerns.

When searching information about a person using the program, one enters the name and can access all the addresses of the web pages a person has written and the website addresses that contain information about the person. Since web pages can store and archive email-discussion lists, search engines can access information that individuals submit to the electronic mailing lists (Schwartz, n.d.). The news groups, on which online users post information, are important sources of data to the search engines. By searching through such groups, they obtain information about the profiles of people, online articles that people post and their interests and activities. Some individuals go to the extent of sharing sensitive and personal information regarding themselves which in most cases places them in danger.

The Internet-specific and Internet-enhanced techniques and are not the only tools that serve as threats to information privacy. The utilization of social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google have also started debates on information security on the Internet. Such social sites are accounts where people place their personal information, such as relationship status, places of work, institutions of study and regular updates about their whereabouts. When one belongs to specific groups created by social networks, the information about the members of a specific group are accessible to all. A person can only connect to a social site when he is within the Internet coverage. A visitor of the social site can read text messages and other details of the targeted person without his knowledge.

The contribution of the Internet as a threat to information privacy is manifested in various ways. One of the ways is the electronic monitoring of workers. Companies can use various Internet-enabled ways to locate the movement of their workers. One of the common ways is to fit tracking devices on their automobiles. The managers can also have access to the passwords of the devices that companies give to workers, such as mobile phones and personal computers. Through the connection to a local area network, they can retrieve the workers’ communication in emails and social networks. While the Internet increases productivity, third parties can access the workers’ private information. It breaches the people’s privacy in the workplace and they live in constant fear of being watched.

Another manifestation of the Internet’s threat to information privacy is the interception and retrieval of email messages, posing an ethical threat to individuals’ private communication. Companies justify interception of email messages because they perceive the email as a property of the company. They check the emails to restrict the use of the available Internet infrastructure to company activities. The denial of service attack has been a major threat on the Internet and in some cases it is associated with the interception of private information. Hackers strive to receive personal identifying information of a registered party within the organization and use the information to exploit the network infrastructure of the firm. The result is costly business operation through delays and lack of meeting the needs and demands of clients in a timely manner. It is evident that a company’s websites contribute largely towards its net income. Therefore, jeopardizing the operation of the platform poses a huge risk to the activities and performance of the organization. The reputation is a result affected from paving way to competitor overpass.

The Internet facilitates data banking. In this process, the databases that contain personal information are merged, facilitating the integration of information concerning individuals from different databases into a central database. The ethical problem in such process is that the people whose information is integrated are not aware of the process. Neither are they knowledgeable of the purpose for the integration, who undertakes the process, the accuracy of the information or the benefit of the integration. Comment by Kosynskyi Mykola: Is it a heading?

The increased use of shopping cards also manifests a threat to information privacy. Computer chips are embedded in the cards that record and carry a variety of information about the buyer. The sellers can obtain the information when the buyers shop at their premises. Though the information enables marketing companies to strategize their target, the accessibility of other people’s private information without their consent poses an ethical problem to the privacy.

The concerns raised by the above Internet-enabled systems, processes, procedures and techniques are that the Internet allows availability of information about persons, organizations and business. The information access could have been better restricted to specific users or obtained with their consent. The tools exchange and make available information about an individual’s financial records, medical records and personal relationships. Most of the information currently available on the Internet as a public could have been private. Most people with ulterior motives, such as muggers and conmen can easily access information about a person and track the movement of the targeted person. An example is the rise of hackers and crackers who can obtain individuals’ information when they are using the Internet or break into their computer systems. Firms can also access the information about their competitors and unearth their closely guarded strategies and business secrets. Regarding the fact that the Internet has proved to be an important tool in the current world, it has also caused debate on the privacy of information the users search, post or retrieve.

References

Andrews, L. (2012). I know who you are and I saw what you did. New York: Free Press.

Benjamin, L. M. (1991). Privacy, computers and personal information: Towards equality and equity in an information age. Communications and the Law, 13(2), 3-16.

Chenoweth, J. (2006). Book review: Who controls the Internet: Illusions of a borderless world. Journal of Information Privacy and Security, 2(2), 62-64.

Elizabeth, A., & Michael, Z. (2012). Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy: Internet research ethics, 4258: pp. 13–15.

Herman T. Tavani: 19 April 2000; Privacy and the Internet.

Klosek, J. (2000). Data privacy in the information age. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books.

Schwartz, P. (n.d.). Beyond Lessig’s code for Internet privacy: Cyberspace filters, privacy control and fair information practices. SSRN Journal.

Sipior, J., Ward, B., & Mendoza, R. (2011). Online privacy concerns associated with cookies, flash cookies, and web beacons. Journal of Internet Commerce, 10(1), 1-16.

Tene, O. (n.d.). What Google knows: Privacy and Internet search engines. SSRN Journal.