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Ethics of Privacy

Tags: privacy ethics

As the Internet proliferates across the globe, it has become an essential instrument in the personal and professional lives of millions of people. Despite this pervasiveness, there is an inescapable consequence to using the web and that is the transformation of computer mediated communication into behaviors and trends that can be tracked across multiple platforms, making it possible to compile detailed, intimate profiles of individuals. These electronic footprints left throughout the Internet occur as soon as you visit a website and have the potential to threaten individual privacy implying there is a fundamental shift in the ethical question of who must manage privacy concerns and whether that is the onus of the individual, commercial enterprise or government (Shaw, 2003). The resulting confrontation between commerce, governments and individual rights has lead to a tenuous balance between the need for privacy, societal benefit and the opportunity for commercial success. As I write this, our culture and the influence of networked communication are changing our concept of personal privacy and although we could attempt to craft predictions about the future impact of technology and networking on our private information, I suspect most of those predictions would be wrong. The sense that our expectations of privacy are changing is an important distinction because courts in both Canada and the United States have chosen to define the tort of intrusion as:

One who intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, upon the seclusion of another or his private affairs or concerns, is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if the invasion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person (Ha-Redeye, 2015).

It insinuates that the influence of platforms such as social media are changing our cultural expectation of privacy and moving the goalposts if related to the reasonable person passage. The thought of future generations finding personal information online offensive is seemingly impractical given our use communication technology today. What is certain is that we are in an era that facilitates the sharing and collection of information within the Internet and that over sharing can have consequences for individuals since we seemingly have limited ability to keep up with the regulatory, societal and legal changes necessary to protect our personal privacy.

To understand why the disclosure of private information is of concern we must recognize that privacy is a concept related to the integrity and well being of a person (Gotterbarn, 1999). The breadth of matters regarded as private contains much of what we referred to as a person’s inner self, or knowing about person’s thoughts, beliefs and emotions (Miller & Weckert, 2000). Furthermore, particulars pertaining to ownership or money are often considered private in Western society, as are plans and strategies that are required to pursue projects or business matters. These simple assertions emphasize the importance of information about an individual and how it relates to their individuality, autonomy and view that people have a right to privacy. Thus, the ability to track individuals through IP addresses and any URL they visit is much like opening a door that allows us look upon the world, but also invites the world look in at us, opening the door to misuse of their information. While etiquette, legislation and technology have been used to manage privacy concerns across the Internet, information is gathered about individuals without their implicit knowledge or consent. This virtual information becomes part of you electronic footprint and makes inferences about your future behavior, personality traits, etc. The control over this digital footprint and its component parts are at the center of this concern and the ability of others to access these parts can lead to criminal activities such as identity theft. Although, the apprehensions regarding privacy invasion go far beyond enabling criminal activity and underline a philosophical discussion about setting limits of new technology to intrude excessively into such areas as public spaces or the workplace. In one instance there is a primary moral responsibility to respect an individual’s right to privacy, there are however examples of the legitimate instances where privacy cannot be expected such as employers needing to monitor employee performance through computer use, or law enforcement agencies to examine the communications of criminal organizations.

Throughout history people have always found ways to connect with one another, whether sharing their stories or documenting their lives in various mediums. Telling one’s story in a manner that others will understand, connect with and appreciate is probably one of the driving forces behind our societies forms of art and literature. The ease at which our online technologies facilitate the sharing of our stories makes the process increasingly comfortable and accessible, allowing users to share vast amounts of information freely. Many individuals and organizations interpret the sharing of information online as a lack of concern about privacy, however users have shown they want power over their personal data, the ability to share when they want and the ability to limit access in others, indicating that sharing and privacy are not mutually exclusive (Reitman, 2010). The casual documentation of our lives through the sharing of data such as location, pictures, thoughts and feelings is not as innocuous as it seems. The ability to tag and categorize data making it easier for others to find, connects a wealth of information to our digital personalities having potential impact in our offline lives. Undoubtedly, many users never read the terms of service or fine print containing privacy policies of the applications they are using because they generally believe they have fundamental rights, however the truth is most agreements provide little in the way of rights and is often subject ongoing change. For some, the personal information posted by individuals to the Internet has the potential to live on in perpetuity creating a concern that ones digital identity may not reflect our evolution on a social and emotional level thus suffering ongoing consequences before we recognized the importance of monitoring and managing our online identities (Reitman, 2010). While there is certainly some debate as to what constitutes public information versus shared private information in our digital era our online identities can be used by potential employers, tracked by government or utilized by individuals with malicious intent. This has caused many to proactively restrict access to aspects of their online identities within social networks triggering some criticism that the lack of privacy has created a hyper-vigilant society that suppresses free expression (Mayer-Schonberger, 2009). Nevertheless it is clear that the sharing of personal, private data on the Internet is critical to many business models that organizations use for economic gain. As a result it tests our ability to seek a balance between the right to share data and the right to privacy.

Mechanism of Intrusion

Today’s information technologies are ostensibly founded on hunter-gatherer principles made possible by the use of various surveillance techniques that are supposed to incorporate our societies view of acceptable behaviour that makes the basic principles of privacy protection transparent to the user (Dodig-Crnkovic & Horniak, 2006). Unfortunately, users are often unaware that actions and habits can expose personal information. Take for example the use of cookies; a small bit of tracking code that advertisers place on your computer. It permits advertisers to target their advertising based on your Web surfing habits. Social Media for instance knows a lot about you from your postings and likes including location information and have you ever considered that saving data to the cloud makes it accessible to those you don’t know. These instances of computer technology that allows for intrusion into our privacy is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather illustrates how our comfortable use of technology has made us inattentive to the concerns.

Ethical Framework

It seems the twentieth century Ethics has been preoccupied with Kant’s deontological perspective of duty or obligation, the affect of individual character or the utilitarian perspective of the greatest good for the greatest number of people (Price, 2008).  However, given technological progression and the advent of computers there has been much discussion as to whether the concerns imposed by computers require a new approach to ethics, one based on their unique challenges (Bynum, 2015).  Without advocating for a completely new branch of ethics it is my opinion that current two aspects of ethical theory have the potential to answer these questions although new perspectives may be required. The approach to ethics that I am encouraging is one that considers values and ethics in the design of technology before its placed in the hands of consumers. Though I admit this poses some difficulty bearing in mind we are asking designers to consider both technology’s’ intended and unintended uses. This manner of approaching ethics may resonate somewhat with Gotterbarn (Computer ethics: responsibility regained, 1991)view that ethics should be embedded in the standards of practice of professionals although considering ethics in the design of technology as it relates to privacy concerns may take into consideration the ethical implication that end users often fail to protect themselves.  Moreover, given the inability of many users to proactively manage their identities, the inclination of democratic societies to reject government intrusion into their lives (Ger & Belk, 1996) and the manner in which commercial organizations collect data it is my assertion that an ethical framework governing a company’s’ behavior be established to govern future decisions on the collection, use and dissemination of private consumer data.  While this does not absolve the other parties in their responsibilities it is my belief that an organization may suffer serious financial consequences if found to violate its own or societies ethical standards.  Consider for a moment the worldwide condemnation of British Petroleum during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the affect on the bottom line.  In essence I have some belief, maybe for the first time in our history, in consequential ethical theory (Sinnott-Armstrong, 2015) that asserts that the decision makers of a company will actually consider the potential benefits and harms in making moral judgments, and that these considerations lead to correct ethical judgments.  Undoubtedly, this is a form of negative utilitarianism that implores decision makers to limit the negative impact of their decisions and cultural relativism where leader yields to the ethical norms of their society (Price, 2008).  As a rational basis for making ethical decisions about the level of collection and dissemination of private information I would expect this would produce a rather weak moral conviction, but the potential of negative financial outcomes towards a company within our networked culture may be significant enough that the consequential analysis creates an ethical path to follow.


Bynum, T. (2015). Computer and Information Ethics. Retrieved April 6, 2015, from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Dodig-Crnkovic, G., & Horniak, V. (2006). Togetherness and respect: ethical concerns of privacy in Global Web Societies . AI & Society , 372-383.

Ger, G., & Belk, R. (1996). Cross-Cultural Differences in Materialism . Journal of Economic Psychology , 55-77.

Gotterbarn, D. (1991). Computer ethics: Responsibility regained. Phi Kappa Phi Journal, 26.

Gotterbarn, D. (1999). Privacy lost: The Net, autonomous agents, and ‘virtual information’ . Ethics and Information Technology , 147-155.

Ha-Redeye, O. (2015). Class Action Intrusions: A Development In Privacy Rights or an Indeterminate Liability? Western Journal of Legal Studies , 1-15.

Mayer-Schonberger, V. (2009). Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Miller, S., & Weckert, J. (2000). Privacy, the Workplace and the Internet . Journal of Business Ethics , 255-265.

Price, T. L. (2008). Leadership Ethics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Reitman, R. (2010). Special Issue on "Issues and Challenges of the Diffusion of Web 2.0 and User Privacy and Security.  Journal of Information Privacy and Security .

Shaw, T. (2003). The Moral Intensity of Privacy: An Empirical Study of Webmasters’ Attitudes. Journal of Business Ethics , 301-318.

Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2015). Consequentialism. Retrieved April 6, 2015, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

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Ethics of Privacy


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