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Ethical Issues in the Online World

Welcome to the blog of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University. Program Director Irina Raicu will be joined by various guests in discussing the ethical issues that arise continuously on the Internet; we hope to host a robust conversation about them, and we look forward to your comments.

The following postings have been filtered by category Privacy and Security. clear filter
  •  Questions about Mass Surveillance

    Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014


    Last week, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, long-time member of the Select Committee on Intelligence and current chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, held a roundtable on the impact of governmental surveillance on the U.S. digital economy.  (You can watch a video of the entire roundtable discussion here.) While he made the case that the current surveillance practices have hampered both our security and our economy, the event focused primarily on the implications of mass surveillance for U.S. business—corporations, entrepreneurs, tech employees, etc.  Speaking at a high-school in the heart of Silicon Valley, surrounded by the Executive Chairman of Google, the General Counsels of Microsoft and Facebook, and others, Wyden argued that the current policies around surveillance were harming one of the most promising sectors of the U.S. economy—and that Congress was largely ignoring that issue. “When the actions of a foreign government threaten red-white-and-blue jobs, Washington [usually] gets up at arms,” Wyden noted, but “no one in Washington is talking about how overly broad surveillance is hurting the US economy.”

    The focus on the economic impact was clearly intended to present the issue of mass surveillance through a new lens—one that might engage those lawmakers and citizens who had not been moved, perhaps, by civil liberties arguments.  However, even in this context, the discussion frequently turned to the “personal” implications of the policies involved.  And in comments both during and after the panel discussion, Wyden expressed his deep concern about the particular danger posed by the creation and implementation of “secret law.”  Microsoft’s General Counsel, Brad Smith, went one step further:  “We need to recognize,” he said, “that laws that the rest of the world does not respect will ultimately undermine the fundamental ability of our own legal processes, law enforcement agencies, and even the intelligence community itself.”

    That brought me back to some of the questions I raised in 2013 (a few months after the Snowden revelations first became public), in an article published by the Santa Clara Magazine.  One of the things I had asked was whether the newly-revealed surveillance programs might “change the perception of the United States to the point where they hamper, more than they help, our national security. “ In regard to secret laws, even if those were to be subject to effective Congressional and court oversight, I wondered, "[i]s there a level of transparency that U.S. citizens need from each branch of the government even if those branches are transparent to one another? In a democracy, can the system of checks and balances function with informed representatives but without an informed public? Would such an environment undermine voters’ ability to choose [whom to vote for]?"

    And, even more broadly, in regard to the dangers inherent in indiscriminate mass surveillance, "[i]n a society in which the government collects the metadata (and possibly much of the content) of every person’s communications for future analysis, will people still speak, read, research, and act freely? Do we have examples of countries in which mass surveillance coexisted with democratic governance?"

    We know that a certain level of mass surveillance and democratic governance did coexist for a time, very uneasily, in our own past, during the Hoover era at the FBI—and the revelations of the realities of that coexistence led to the Church committee and to policy changes.

    Will the focus on the economic impact of current mass governmental surveillance lead to new changes in our surveillance laws? Perhaps.  But it was Facebook’s general counsel who had (to my mind) the best line of last week’s roundtable event. When a high-school student in the audience asked the panel how digital surveillance affects young people like him, who want to build new technology companies or join growing ones, one panelist advised him to just worry about creating great products, and to let people like the GCs worry about the broader issues.  Another panelist told him that he should care about this issue because of the impact that data localization efforts would have on future entrepreneurs’ ability to create great companies. Then, Facebook’s Colin Stretch answered. “I would say care about it for the reasons you learned in your Civics class,” he said, “not necessarily the reasons you learned in your computer science class.”

    Illustration by Stuart Bradford

  •  Are You A Hysteric, Or A Sociopath? Welcome to the Privacy Debate

    Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014

     

    Whether you’re reading about the latest data-mining class action lawsuit through your Google Glass or relaxing on your front porch waving at your neighbors, you probably know that there’s a big debate in this country about privacy.  Some say privacy is important. Some say it’s dead.  Some say kids want it, or not. Some say it’s a relatively recent phenomenon whose time, by the way, has passed—a slightly opaque blip in our history as social animals. Others say it’s a human right without which many other rights would be impossible to maintain.

    It’s a much-needed discussion—but one in which the tone is often not conducive to persuasion, and therefore progress.  If you think concerns about information privacy are overrated and might become an obstacle to the development of useful tools and services, you may hear yourself described as a [Silicon Valley] sociopath or a heartless profiteer.  If you believe that privacy is important and deserves protection, you may be called a “privacy hysteric.”
     
    It’s telling that privacy advocates are so often called “hysterics”—a term associated more commonly with women, and with a surfeit of emotion and lack of reason.  (Privacy advocates are also called “fundamentalists” or “paranoid”—again implying belief not based in reason.)  And even when such terms are not directly deployed, the tone often suggests them. In a 2012 Cato Institute policy analysis titled “A Reasonable Response to the Privacy ‘Crisis,’” for example, Larry Downes writes about the “emotional baggage” invoked by the term “privacy,” and advises, “For those who naturally leap first to leg­islative solutions, it would be better just to fume, debate, attend conferences, blog, and then calm down before it’s too late.”  (Apparently debate, like fuming and attending conferences, is just a harmless way to let off steam—as long as it doesn’t lead to such hysteria as class-action lawsuits or actual attempts at legislation.)
     
    In the year following Edward Snowden’s revelations, the accusations of privacy “hysteria” or “paranoia” seemed to have died down a bit; unfortunately, they might be making a comeback. The summary of a recent GigaOm article, for example, accuses BuzzFeed of “pumping up the hysteria” in its discussion of ad beacons installed—and quickly removed—in New York.
     
    On the other hand, those who oppose privacy-protecting legislation or who argue that other values or rights might trump privacy sometimes find themselves diagnosed, too–if not as sociopaths, then at least as belonging on the “autism spectrum”: disregardful of social norms, unable to empathize with others.
     
    Too often, the terms thrown about by some on both sides in the privacy debate suggest an abdication of the effort to persuade. You can’t reason with hysterics and sociopaths, so there’s no need to try. You just state your truth to those others who think like you do, and who cheer your vehemence.
     
    But even if you’re a privacy advocate, you probably want the benefits derived from collecting and analyzing at least some data sets, under some circumstances; and even if you think concerns about data disclosures are overblown, you still probably don’t disclose everything about yourself to anyone who will listen.
     
    If information is power, privacy is a defensive shell against that power.  It is an effort to modulate vulnerability.  (The more vulnerable you feel, the more likely you are to understand the value of privacy.)  So privacy is an inherent part of all of our lives; the question is how to deploy it best.  In light of new technologies that create new privacy challenges, and new methodologies that seek to maximize benefits while minimizing harms (e.g. “differential privacy”), we need to be able to discuss this complicated balancing act —without charged rhetoric making the debate even more difficult.
     
    If you find yourself calling people privacy-related names (or writing headlines or summaries that do that, even when the headlined articles themselves don’t), please rephrase.
     
    Photo by Tom Tolkien, unmodified, used under a Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
     
     
  •  Protecting Privacy and Society

    Monday, Apr. 15, 2013

    Consumer and business data is increasingly moving to the "cloud," and people are clamoring for protection of that data.  However, as Symantec's President, CEO, and Chairman of the Board Steve Bennett points out in this clip, "maximum privacy" is really anonymity, and some people use anonymity as a shield for illegal and unethical behavior.  How should cloud service providers deal with this dilemma?  What is their responsibility to their customers, and to society at large?  How should good corporate citizens respond when they are asked to cooperate with law enforcement? 

    Providers of cloud services are all faced with this dilemma; as Ars Technica recently reported, for example, Verizon took action when it discovered child pornography in one of its users' accounts.