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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Loss of Online Privacy: What's the Harm?

Loss of Online Privacy: What's the Harm?

Loss of Online Privacy: What's the Harm?

"All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret." - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Increasingly, governments, corporations, and other entities are collecting information about you that you willingly or unknowingly give out online. Even seemingly innocuous apps may now be collecting a wealth of data about you: Your name, your age, your gender, your physical address, email address, phone number, the particular device from which you access the Internet, your religious and political affiliation, relationship status, what you look like, where you are, who your friends and family members are, as well as your favorite foods, books, movies, hobbies, Web sites, restaurants, stores, clothes, vacation destinations, your travel history, your past experiences, etc.

By tracking your online searches and communications, moreover, companies note, make assumptions about, and sometimes disclose more than just the preferences and interests that you openly express. If you search online for information about sexually transmitted diseases or laws that protect whistleblowers, for information about domestic violence or the Dalai Lama, for Occupy protests or for sites that allow you to download songs without paying for them, a variety of entities will know—and draw conclusions about you based on those searches. You may then find that ads appearing on pages that you visit will reflect those subjects that you searched for, or even subjects that you discussed in emails that you may have considered private.

Some advertisers and other collectors of online information about individuals point to the benefits that people derive when ads can be targeted to their particular needs or searches can be focused on their particular interests. For example, some search engines (such as Google) aim to present you search results in a particular order customized to match your online profile: Therefore, even if you enter the same search terms as someone else, you will get different results than another person would see. The search will try to match your preferences, inferred from all the bits of information that Google knows about you. The goal is to help you find answers that are more relevant to you. Similarly, advertisers (and some customers) argue that consumers benefit when they see ads that are behaviorally targeted based on information collected about them: If you're searching for plane tickets to Paris, you will get ads for Parisian restaurants or hotels; if you buy frequently from a particular company, you might get ads offering you discounts on future purchases from that company; if you're a guy, you won't see ads for tampons. According to advertisers, people are more likely to click on behaviorally targeted ads. Such practices, and the claims that they benefit you as a user, invite a weighing of benefits and harms.

Are there any harms inherent in the collection of all that information about you? You may have heard people say that they have "done nothing wrong" and are therefore not worried about various entities collecting information about them. Is there harm in uncontrolled disclosure, even if you have "nothing to hide"?

Researcher danah boyd has written, "Often, privacy isn't about hiding; it's about creating space to open up."1 In a blog post entitled "Plenty to Hide," Jay Stanley, a Senior Policy Analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), notes,

Privacy is about much broader values than just "hiding things." … [U]ltimately the fullest retort to the "nothing to hide" impulse is a richer philosophical defense of privacy that articulates its importance to human life—the human need for a refuge from the eye of the community, and from the self-monitoring that living with others entails; the need for space in which to play and to try out new ideas, identities, and behaviors, without lasting consequences; and the importance of maintaining the balance of power between individuals and the state.2

In addressing issues such as the balance of power between individuals and the state, weighing the benefits and harms that result from a particular privacy-related practice, or considering whether privacy is a right that must be respected, you are engaging in a process of ethical analysis.

Discussion Questions

Online advertisers (and the companies that make money by providing them with data about you) argue that they collect information about you only in order to provide you with better-targeted ads that are more relevant to you, personally. Do you perceive any harm in targeted advertising? If so, do the benefits outweigh that harm?

If you began to feel that you lived your life under observation, would that shape your identity? Would you be less likely to try new things? Would you find it harder to develop true intimacy with a limited number of people? Would you be more afraid to act politically, for or against particular causes?

What might be the benefits of personalized search results? Are there also harms inherent in the customization of search results (when the customization is based on a profile of who you are online)?

Are the current ways in which information about us is collected online fair? Why, or why not?

  1. boyd, danah. "Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity." SXSW. Austin, Texas, March 13, 2010. (last visited June 28, 2012).
  2. Stanley, Jay. "Plenty to Hide." (last visited June 28, 2012).

Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Photo by estherase under Creative Commons.

Updated June 2021

Feb 4, 2013