posted Aug 30, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Applying the Privacy Yardstick. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

It is easy to see that in attempting to apply this yardstick, one must carefully search for people or person-like entities that actually meet the guidelines for ethical behavior, rather then the opposite. Current common practice appears to be to take whatever you have the technical capability of acquiring.

Most information collection right now is either:

In theory we can avoid nearly all privacy invasion by moving into a hand-crafted log cabin and living off the land. Often a false dichotomy is handed to us between doing that, or putting up with the privacy invasions that seem to be a part of modern technological life. But it does not follow that this dichotomy should exist. If a monopoly exists in a given domain, or all producers of some good or service engage in some privacy violation (effectively an "oligarchy" from the point of view of privacy issues), then there really is no effective choice. This is an abuse of monopoly or oligarchy power to force you to either lower you price for your privacy sensitive information (down to zero) or do without some good or service. This is unethically raising the price of a service beyond what a competitive, informed market should bear.

Another virtually ignored aspect of the current privacy free-for-all is the effect of distribution on information. I do not particularly care that my insurance company knows my mailing address. They need it to send me my bills. Yet when they sell this exact same information to other entities, I consider my privacy violated, as they send me pre-approved credit card after pre-approved credit card, which I must spend my valuable time destroying to prevent somebody else from using the applications or cards to rack up charges in my name, which has already happened to my wife once. Information harmless in one entity's possession may be very, very harmful if another entity gets it, yet there is little or no acknowledgement of this fact in either economic reality or the privacy debate.

This answers another common argument, the claim that once I have some information, I can sell it to anyone I want. There is a usually-unspoken claim that a person's privacy is no more violated after the sale of my address information then before the sale, when at least one person already possessed the privacy-sensitive information. This argument falls down on two points: One, with every harmful event that occurs caused by additional sale and use of the information occurs, the privacy violations become more and more ethically serious. The only way to sustain this argument is to frame the problem in terms of binary "privacy violated/not-violated", which as usual is too simplistic to handle the real world. Two, I may not consider my privacy violated at all until the sale, if the first entity has some good reason to have the knowledge, so there can still be a fresh privacy violation, even with a binary view.

In fact, the vast majority of value things like our address have to marketers is the value it has in combination with other bits and pieces of information. It's really the exceptional database where each single record is inherently a privacy violation; your credit record, your medical history, and your criminal record, if any. The rest of the value lies in the combination with seemingly harmless bits of information. Thus, when you see privacy advocates like myself getting upset at what seems to be a trivial violation, bear in mind that we see it as not an additive privacy violation, but a multiplicative violation. The first few bits of data are worthless, but start adding a few thousand bits here and a few thousand there and pretty soon you're talking real knowledge.

The state of privacy in the current world is absolutely reprehensible, not because so much privacy-sensitive information is being collected, but because so much information is being collected and used without mutually agreeable compensation being arranged for the source of the information. Instead, entities, mostly corporations, are abusing their positions to effectively force people to cede this information for no benefit whatsoever, and with little or no effective ability to just opt-out of the collection entirely if the collecting entity is unwilling to meet the price set by the information owner. Further, there is no acknowledgement of the increased value of information as it combined with other bits. This is basically large-scale theft, in many cases theft of information that has value transcending mere money.


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