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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Ethics of Online Privacy Protection

The Ethics of Online Privacy Protection

The Ethics of Online Privacy Protection

"When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else." -- David Brin

"The principles of privacy and data protection must be balanced against additional societal values such as public health, national security and law enforcement, environmental protection, and economic efficiency." -- Omer Tene and Jules Polonetsky

Even if you believe that privacy is important and valuable, you may still agree that there are ways in which the collection of vast amounts of data can help promote the "common good". In an article entitled "Privacy in the Age of Big Data: A Time for Big Decisions,"1 Omer Tene and Jules Polonetsky list some of big data's "big benefits": the analysis of vast amounts of data has enabled researchers to determine adverse side effects of drugs that may otherwise have gone unnoticed; to track (and respond to) the spread of diseases; to develop the "smart grid," which is designed to optimize energy use; to improve traffic control; etc. Other researchers are analyzing big data to gain insights into various aspects of human behavior.

Aside from such benefits, you may also feel that that there are circumstances in which an invasion of privacy would be justified. For example, in some cases we allow law enforcement to collect and use certain information when they are investigating crimes or prosecuting alleged wrongdoers. We want the military to be able to thwart attacks against us: in order to do that, the military might need to invade some people's privacy in order to uncover terrorists or state actors that would harm us. We might support online tracking that would allow, say, the Centers for Disease Control to figure out which people may have been exposed to an infectious disease. We may even be willing to condone some violations of privacy by a school district seeking to uncover and stop an online bully.

In this context, we might consider a warning offered by Justice Brandeis in a famous dissenting opinion that he wrote in 1928, in Olmstead v. United States:

Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government's purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.

When we try to determine the type of privacy that we want protected, and the extent to which we want it protected, we—the people "born to freedom"—have to find a balance. That's no easy feat, as Eli Noam, director of the Columbia Institute of Tele-information, explains:

Privacy is an interaction, in which the rights of different parties collide. A has a certain preference about the information he receives and lets out. B, on the other hand, may want to learn more about A, perhaps in order to protect herself. … [P]rivacy is an issue of control over information flows, with a much greater inherent complexity than a conventional "consumers versus business," or "citizens versus the state" analysis suggests.2

Because the striking of that balance may be damaging to some individuals or groups, and because it involves a choice between a "good" or "bad" alternative, or multiple "goods" and "bads," the process of finding that balance draws on the discipline of ethics. In evaluating alternative options, we may ask questions that have been distilled from various approaches to ethical decision-making.

As you evaluate new laws or rules proposed in the name of online privacy protection, new standards suggested by industries that profit from access to your online data, or new online social norms that develop over time, you could ask the following questions:

Would these measures respect the rights of all who have a stake in the outcome? Do some rights "trump" other rights, and, if so, which measure best respects the most important rights? This is the Rights Approach.

Would these measures treat people equally, or proportionately? This is the Justice Approach.

Taking into account, equally, everyone who would be affected by these measures, would these measures promote the most overall happiness, and cause the least overall harm and suffering? This is the Utilitarian Approach.

Would these measures best serve the community as a whole, not just some members? This is the Common Good Approach.

Would these measures lead people to develop the habits and character traits of a good person, the sort of person who is a moral example for others? This is the Virtue Approach.

Discussion Questions

Do all people have an equal need for privacy? Do some, who are more vulnerable in some way, need privacy more than others?

Do you believe that our legislators should pass new laws to protect privacy, given the new technologies and products that now collect information about us?

Should individuals bear the responsibility of protecting their own privacy? In your experience, do most people understand the way in which their information is accessed, collected, or otherwise used online?

1. Tene, Omer and Polonetsky, Jules. "Privacy in the Age of Big Data: A Time for Big Decisions." February 2, 2012. 64 Stan. L. Rev. Online 63. (last visited June 28, 2012).
2. Noam, Eli. "Privacy and Self-Regulation: Markets for Electronic Privacy." 1997. (last visited June 28, 2012).

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

Photo by JermJus under Creative Commons.

Feb 4, 2013