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The astronomical rise of information technology over the last two decades has taken the world by storm and is arguably the driving force of society today. Coinciding with the rise of the internet and computing technology, the storing and distributing of data information has become exponentially easier as time went on. From researching topics in scientific fields to sending your friends GIFs of particularly small cats or dogs performing human tasks, any person with access to a mobile smartphone or computer can do these tasks with overwhelming ease. Access to these devices isn’t particularly hard (at least in developed countries) as in 2019, 81% of Americans own some sort of smartphone and 74% of Americans own some sort of laptop or computer (Pew Research Center 2019), showing that many people in America have access to almost any piece of information within arm’s reach. Though effortless access to a plethora of information has a positive impact on society overall, newer technologies formed during this technological boom have conceived a new problem not found in any other period of human history. The rise of information technology over the last twenty years has imposed a risk on the privacy of individuals and without imposing limits on the accessibility of their private information, individual privacy will transition itself as a luxury rather than being a right for individuals.
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Personal privacy is a concept not foreign to most, if not all individuals. Whether it is to keep certain details about themselves private or to stray away from the societal obligations tied to themselves, individuals tend to isolate themselves to prevent things close to them from becoming public. Though in the last twenty years, information technology has essentially erased the barrier dividing what personal and private information should be. Large tech companies have imposed a risk on individuals’ privacy with the way personal information is handled and distributed within those companies. Companies such as Google and Facebook constantly track an individual’s behaviours online and use their data in immoral ways that most individuals are not aware of. Google is notorious for this, and even explicitly states in their terms of service that their “…automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection” (Google 2017). Any content stored or connected to an individual’s Google account can be scanned through, including private information or documents that the individual might have thought was private. Similarly, Facebook uses an individual’s name and profile picture and any information about the actions that individual has taken on Facebook for ads, offers, and any other sponsored content that Facebook chooses to display on their products, without any compensation to the individual (Facebook 2019). A valid argument that can arise from this claim is that users must manually agree to the terms and conditions of any company (commonly by checking a box that says they have read the terms of service) and that it is the fault of the individual for being careless in not reading the terms of service. While in some cases this might be true, often the terms of service provided by some company are often too long for a layman to read. Even if one were to read the terms of service, most would not understand the terminology used and its meaning will be misconstrued. There are not effective studies or statistics to back up this claim, but there is a famous case that strengthens the claim that people do not read the terms and conditions for a piece of software.
PC Pitstop, a company that specializes in diagnosing home computers and keeping them secure, set out an experiment to show and detail the potential harms of not reading terms of service and EULAs (End-User License Agreement). In 2005, PC Pitstop added a temporary clause in their EULA for the software they were selling that would award anyone who contacted them money. It took five months and more than 3000 sales until one person finally contacted them inquiring about the money that would be promised to them (PC Pitstop 2012). That person was rewarded 1000$. While in that case there were no harmful repercussions, it is important to note that the piece of software the EULA was associated with would scan a user’s computer to check for any viruses or defects. This piece of software could have easily mined a user’s computer for personal information and it would have been legal because that user accepted the EULA without reading it. PC Pitstop’s experiment highlights an ever-growing problem in society today and that problem is blindly accepting terms and conditions to use a hot new piece of technology or software without thinking of the consequences of accepting those terms and conditions. This problem is what imposes the risk of personal privacy in the landscape of technology today. Many people are too eager to download or buy the newest ‘app’ and completely disregarding the fragile state in which their personal information and data lie. Before discussing how we should impose limits on the accessibility of private data and ensure our information stays private, there is another looming issue that must be tackled. If large tech companies claim to use users’ private data to improve their overall experience in both using the piece of software and in their life (e.g. using user data to provide advertisements relevant to their problems or increasing the quality of search results when looking for information online) then is this problem even worth discussing? In general, if a company’s supposed ‘breaches of privacy’ provide great utility to individuals, then why should those operations cease to exist?
Imposing limits on what private information is available to individuals, corporations, and/or governments is necessary not only for the information for the person or entity in question but also for the overall good in society. Before discussing the possible solutions and limitations that should be instated, we must first discuss why we should be imposing limits on private information in the first place and how these limits are morally good for society. Recall that Google automatically scans the content linked to your Google account to provide you relevant products or advertisements. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Google also uses private data on an individual’s account for other purposes. Google, as well as Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Facebook, was documented to have given access to all emails and personal data under their domain to PRISM, a surveillance program under the NSA (National Security Agency) (Gellman and Poitras 2013). These breaches of privacy are harmful, and as Stacey L. Edgar states, “there is the potential for inaccurate information being spread around about a person, or even information that is accurate, but is no one else’s concern, being misused” (Edgar 2003). In 2019, many people use the internet and mobile applications to handle banking, file storage, communication, etc. daily as everything is easily accessible in one place. Peoples’ lives are well documented online thanks to the rise of social media and platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, but no thought is given to who is accessing and storing the information you put out online. The accessibility that large organizations like Google and any nation’s government has to any individual’s private information is truly astonishing and terrifying, and as Stacey L. Edgar states, “citizens would then cease to be autonomous, freely choosing beings; they would be more like animals in a laboratory, or cogs in a machine” (Edgar 2003). What Edgar is trying to emphasis, and the point that I am trying to stress is that the level of control that these entities have in terms of access to information can be used to potentially control lives, limiting the freedom an individual may possess in society. The behaviour exhibited by these entities is morally wrong as it not only limits a person’s choice, but also decreases the net utility in society overall. Another clear example of this type of behaviour is shown in the world of ecommerce and marketing. Amazon, another large tech company, has the permission to use “cookies” (an extremely small piece of data used in a browser that is sent by a server) to track and obtain certain types of information about an individual (Amazon 2017). Types of information collected range from information you have already given Amazon to login information and email addresses for other sites, browser type, length of time on a page, page interaction, etc. to bring accurate advertisements and recommendations to the individual (Amazon 2017). In this case, the data collected about an individual is purposely used to persuade them into impulse buying products they might need through Amazon’s service, even if the individual does not need said products. This case exemplifies the highlighted moral problem before where private information collected on an individual is being used to control their behaviour. These morally questionable actions can be attributed to the lack of limits on the accessibility of private information of individuals, and if left unchecked can lead to unfavorable outcomes for individual privacy. Though now knowing why limitless accessibility to private information is immoral, possible solutions and limits that fit within what is morally right can now be discussed.
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Giving access to view private information is sometime vital to prevent harmful or potentially disastrous situations to occur in the future, but there should be limits to what organizations or governments should or should not be able to view. Some organizations are starting to take the initiative on privacy protection in information technology (primarily the internet and web browsers). Mozilla Corporation, a high profile not-for-profit tech organization responsible for help enforcing standard protocols on the internet, have implemented browser extensions that allow you to block certain websites from tracking individuals on other sites so that individuals may browse the web safely. VPNs (Virtual Private Network) also allow users to browse the internet on a secure connection that can not be tracked by trackers from websites. These temporary solutions are great for individuals at home, but they do not solve the core problem with security and privacy issues in newer information technologies. The core problem lies with the freedom that large entities like Google, Facebook, Amazon, or the government have with the private data they collect and how they collect private data. As previously stated, companies like Amazon and Google track individuals while they on other sites and collect various amounts of information. A good limit to start with would be to prevent companies like this from collecting data on individuals unless it is on their own site. By doing this, it may impact the advertisements given to you by these companies but overall personal data (like what pages you view, what you do on those pages, etc.) can truly stay “private” as they won’t be stored by a third party. Lastly, another limit that would be vital to keep individual privacy from becoming a luxury is to explicitly state what kind of information will be tracked in or looked at before using a piece of software. This will allow users to become aware quickly what they are allowing a specific piece of technology or software to do instead of completely ignoring or skimming over a lengthy EULA that no one will read. Now these limits might not reverse the process of privacy becoming a luxury and might seem simple on the surface, but they can provide a good starting point to better security and privacy of personal information overall.
The rise of information technology over the last twenty years has imposed a risk on the privacy of individuals and without imposing limits on the accessibility of their private information, individual privacy will transition itself as a luxury rather than being a right for individuals. Security and privacy for personal information has been taken advantage of seemingly ignorant individuals by large tech organizations and governments by taking advantage of the latest information technology for selfish purposes. While these selfish purposes might not always be harmful, the high possibility for personal information being misused for immoral purposes increases dramatically the more powerful these organizations and governments get to be. But as information technology improves and the information about these behaviours spread, organizations and people alike will continue to fight against the totalitarian-like behaviours that large tech companies and governments exhibit to preserve the human right that is individual privacy.
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