Increasing transparency of traditional personal boundaries in our society, brought on by the Internet, will force people to confront ethical issues that would not have arisen when information was more highly compartmentalized. The fictionalized personal profiles given above illustrate this point. If they genuinely applied to the people shown and were posted online, some thorny ethical issues would emerge. Image: Mark Clemens (photoillustration); Richard Nowitz National Geographic Collection (crowd scene)
- Erosions of privacy are often better understood as other kinds of harms.
- "Loss of privacy” may really be a loss of security.
- Much (though not all) anxiety about genetic privacy would go away if medical care were affordable to everyone.
- Citizens should have the right to monitor and post information about the activities of government and government officials.
- People are gaining effective tools to control what personal information they want to give out and to whom.
Privacy is a public Rorschach test: say the word aloud, and you can start any number of passionate discussions. One person worries about governmental abuse of power; another blushes about his drug use and sexual history; a third vents outrage about how corporations collect private data to target their ads or how insurance companies dig through personal medical records to deny coverage to certain people. Some fear a world of pervasive commercialization, in which data are used to sort everyone into one or another “market segment”—the better to cater to people’s deepest desires or to exploit their most frivolous whims. Others fret over state intrusion and social strictures.
Such fears are typically presented as trade-offs: privacy versus effective medical care, privacy versus free (advertising-driven) content, privacy versus security. Those debates are all well worn, but they are now returning to the fore in a way they did not when specialists, insiders and die-hard privacy advocates were the only ones paying attention.