Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
-- RobertW - 25 Mar 2008

Word Count: 976

O’Harrow’s and similar works have taught us that we are quickly losing hope in maintaining privacy of our personal information. Even if what information collectors say is true – that your information is safe with them, which is highly unlikely – one’s disclosed information still remains subject to release via hacking, government subpoena for interests it finds compelling, and mergers and other transactions resulting in sharing of information. Disclosed information is only as safe as the holder allows, and thus, it is harder than ever to know who has or is selling your information.

Big brother has won the ‘information gathering’ fight, and is pushing even further with proposals such as national RFID and public face recognition and tracking. Society has begun to cope with increased information collection by government and other parties, due to the lack of immediate effect on the individual, and due to the potential positive effects of information gathering – government security, making Amazon shopping easier, etc. To maintain autonomy, then, members of general society must change focus from keeping information private, to limiting the damage that third parties can cause using the information already disclosed. This trend will force individuals to: (1) take more care than ever to keep clean records, as the potential for damaging use of information will increase; (2) be increasingly diligent in ensuring the correctness of- and limiting the publicity of personal information; and (3) assume more responsibility against third party malfeasant use of personal information.

The growth of information gathering allows an increasing number of third parties to know a wider variety of information about any particular individual. Whereas an individual used to be fairly anonymous outside of what he wrote on a job application or a resumé, he is now an entry in one of many databases (increasing in number) to which most any inquiring entity can refer. This approaches a resumé-less society in which one’s name and social security number is all an entity needs to determine an individual’s history, habits, or fitness for anything. Before law school, I was warned profusely about keeping my nose clean in preparation for bar character and fitness review. My concern now goes beyond bar fitness, to the realization that any bad act that I ever commit, any negative statement that is in any way recorded, or any bad picture ever taken has the potential to follow me for the rest of my life. One bad statement at the airport can get ‘terrorist’ permanently on my record. A firing for cause can keep me out of any job with access to any information source that gathered information on that firing. The individual must thus be that much more careful in keeping that which is attributed to him clean and positive in order to avoid the problems/ramification afforded by record-based definition of each person. The potential harms stemming from information disclosure will also make the individual take more efforts to keep his life private. Those wary of their privacy will find that the less one does, the less there is to be disclosed, ‘found out,’ or misused. Information collection, identity theft, and related dangers will cause more and more members of society to withdraw, similar to those who keep money in mattresses in distrust of banks and other recluses whose fear grows with the growth of the new and unknown.

Widening information gathering will likewise force the individual to be more diligent in ensuring the correctness of any information disclosed. It has and will increasingly become economically feasible for inquiring entities to obtain information from established databases instead of otherwise tracking an individual’s history – for example by questioning the target individual or doing independent research. Why re-invent the wheel? The individual will therefore be responsible not only in ensuring that initial entries are ‘good’ ones, but also that they are correct ones. A mistake on a credit report of one reporting agency may be recorded by another information-collecting entity before the subject notices any problem. While the individual may be able to correct the first party, e.g. Equifax, he may not have access to (or knowledge of) a third party body referring to- or otherwise collecting data from Equifax. Any party referring to this third party may thus get and use incorrect information about the target individual. With the sole interest in the correction of this data, each member of society will thus become the sole responsible party for correctness of his own stored information.

Lastly, members of society will need to be increasingly proactive in ensuring that their information is not being used for malice. As internet use has increased, malfeasance has also increased; with users harnessing the everywhere-ness of the internet and the anonymity it provides to wreak havoc. While banks and similar entities with which we entrust our information have an interest in keeping this information safe (for mainly business purposes) these parties are much less damaged by identity theft than the victim is. This is why the identity theft problem still exists. The individual’s dependence on these entities will thus decrease as he realizes that he is the sole party with anything at stake in transactions involving his personal information. In other words, with the wide spread of databasing individuals’ personal information, the individual will necessarily be increasingly vigilant in ensuring his own safety as concerns his information.

One’s privacy has traditionally been linked to his autonomy. The general sentiment is that as long as one can act without third party review, one is freer to do what he wants. The autonomy focus changes, however, in a world in which there is a low (and ever-decreasing) expectation of privacy of information. With personal information disclosure fairly far gone, the means of maintaining autonomy and privacy in the future will necessarily have to shift from ‘keeping my information private,’ to ‘keeping others from mishandling my disclosed data.’

  • You could have done more if you had written more simply. The first three sentences of the last paragraph, for example, could have been combined into one, reducing 53 words to 20. At least a third, probably almost half, of the essay is air that could be deflated away. The theme, reduced to a sentence (which all good themes can be), is: "Because more data of every kind is now being collected and remains accessible forever, people need to be more careful about correcting data on file about them, and exercising whatever rights they are given to control its use." This is true, and can't be said often enough, but the reader expects you to say something about how this is to be done by Americans who are neither expert with data management nor burdened with immense amounts of free time that could be put into the effort. Moreover, though you are clear about the fact that more information is collected, you aren't equally clear in stating that the US is being turned, because of its singularly weak version of market regulation, into the data-trading capital of the world, where everyone's efforts to control access to and marketing of their data are actively fought by the richest and best-informed organizations in the global economy. So the how questions are of the highest importance, and if you said more simply what you do say here, you would be better able to get to the parts you don't discuss.


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r3 - 23 Jan 2009 - 16:04:16 - IanSullivan
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