February 25th, 2011 by Tony Doyle
Privacy is hot. A leader in the debate is Helen Nissenbaum of NYU’s Media, Culture, and Communications Department. Her latest book is Privacy in Context (Chicago). You can pick it up at the main campus library on level B2, call number JC596.2 .U6 N57.
The theme of Nissenbaum’s book is the rising threat to privacy posed by digital technology and its surpassing ability to gather, analyze, and distribute personal information. Much of her book focuses on the dramatic increase in the flow of personal information due to new technology’s capacity (1) to monitor our digital comings and goings, (2) to aggregate and analyze information gathered from (1), and (3) to deliver that information quickly almost anywhere. Computerization and networking mean that our daily doings can be rigorously tracked. Consider toll passes, the GPS in your cell phone, the ever more frequent use of credit cards, and internet click streams. Think too of the marked increase in public video surveillance over the last decade. This technology can now be combined with ever more sophisticated face recognition software, which enables surveillers to combine information about your image in the park with information about it as captured on the subway or at the airport. Mundane or monumental, our actions are “newly enriched with information.” In the old days we enjoyed a measure of privacy in public just in virtue of hazy memories and the lack of permanent records. Those days, Nissenbaum warns, are going, if not gone. No conspiracy lurks though. Generally, the tracking is a by-product of the kinds of activities mentioned above, most of which increase convenience, efficiency, and even safety.
Conspiracy or not, Nissenbaum is concerned. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, after personal information has been gathered it can be aggregated and analyzed. The combination can yield rich personal profiles that could not have emerged in the days of paper records. These profiles can in turn be swiftly distributed to every nook and cranny of the internet. For this reason Nissenbaum rejects the assumption, common in the privacy literature, that aggregations of bland information—where you live, how you earn your living, what you’ve bought over the last year—are themselves bland. The professional aggregators plainly think otherwise. Says Nissenbaum, “Information begets information.” Why worry? First, take so-called dynamic pricing, where marketers use what they know, say, about a person’s income or past purchases to adjust prices according to what she might be willing to pay for their goods or services. Second, marketers might also target her known vulnerabilities, for instance, by sending her coupons for free cigarettes shortly after she has finished a quit smoking program. Privacy in Context canvasses many such examples.
Despite her cautions about the threat posed to privacy by information technology, Nissenbaum is no Luddite. She acknowledges that the benefits of the digital and networking revolutions outweigh the costs. The costs though are considerable and potentially devastating. She recommends that we generally resist new forms of information gathering, since we often don’t know what information is being gathered, where it has come from, who is getting it, and what they’re using it for—something to think about the next time you swipe your ID at Hunter’s turnstiles.