August 1998

Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape

If there's a central ethos to this collection, it's found immediately, in the front flap of the cover jacket: "Privacy is the capacity to negotiate social relationships by controlling access to information about oneself." The essays explore how this definition for understanding privacy might be affected in the new landscape, a metaphoric term that seeks to capture the unique qualities of privacy as its transferred from the physicality of humans in a geographical place (best suggested, perhaps, by the phrase 'in the privacy of your own home') to the "emergence of a 'digital persona' that is integral to the construction of the social individual" (3) in cyberspace. The concern for the individual -- the need for the individual to have their rights to privacy defined and protected becomes an underlying argument in the book.

Unlike many introductions which seem pro-forma and merely provide short summaries of what follows, this Introduction is as rich as the essays which follow because it synthesizes their main points and uses them to reveal more fully what the book's take on privacy and the new landscape is. Agre begins by telling readers what the book is not, and in so doing provides a bibliography (via works cited) of a range of other sources that look at privacy in different ways: foundational analyses, investigative works, sociological approaches, by comparing areas of concern, as a survey of the field, or as an attempt to define theories of privacy and technology.

I draw attention to this rhetorical move because it's one of the strengths of the collection -- it knows what it wants to be, "helpful in framing the new policy debate" (2) that is emerging about technology and privacy. The richness of Agre's citations point to yet another strength in the collection. Every piece is richly sourced, offering useful bibliographies and end notes for readers. Because of the book's focus and quality scholarship, its goal to be conceptual and to consider privacy policy questions most broadly (internationally, in fact), it serves as a valuable resource both for its ideas and as a map to further study.

In addition, the chapters are all written in a way that makes them useful for beginners, never assuming a shared history on behalf of reader and writer. This works in large part because the contributors come from different fields: law, communications theory, privacy advocacy, software design, government, and think tanks; further, the authors come from or write about privacy laws and policies in different countries (Germany, Austria, Canada, to name a few). Given this eclectic array, then, the essays take care to always offer relevant background information and analyses. The international flavor of the collection drives home the metaphor inherent in the phrase, "new landscape," and suggests a wider frame of reference than would a collection focused only on U.S. law and policy.

Writing in the Introduction, Agre notes, ". . . control over personal information is control over an aspect of the identity one projects to the world, and the right to privacy is the freedom from unreasonable constraints on the construction of one's own identity" (7). Based on this understanding, a key argument in the book is this: New computer technologies have made possible new ways to transfer, merge, collect, and sell data about people, including real time data such as whether one is logged into a particular computer and what they are doing on that computer at any given moment. These new ways of "seeing" fragments of a person threaten our traditional notion of privacy, which is essentially the right to be left alone, a kind of cultural-wide version of don't ask, don't tell. With the new technology, the authors argue, we often don't realize when and what machines of surveillance and data gathering are asking or when and how we are telling them about ourselves. That is, we don't always have the control over our self-projections that we should have.

The hope of the book is that both the dangers and possibilities of this new exposure can be recognized without falling into full-blown paranoia. While new technologies do generate more data about us, technology can also be used both to protect and to stop data from emerging in ways that threaten our ability and freedom, quite literally, to compose ourselves. The authors conclude that to make this possibility happen, we must understand how technology changes the dynamics of negotiating relationships.

Another common thread among the essays is the notion of privacy not as some fixed and easily definable absolute, but as concept that's always in process. The authors explore policy issues: data protection and access, electronic surveillance, multimedia and data base design, chief among them, to show how technology so far as conceptualized privacy and come up lacking in key areas.

So for example, in chapter one, "Beyond the Mirror World: Privacy and the Representational Practices of Computing," Agre explores the history, rationale, and limits of the computer as a representational tool that mirrors the world in which we live. Because databases and virtual town halls contain elements of information about a person, they appear to offer an undistorted image of that person, but in fact they offer only fragments. Further, how those fragments are collected and used or contextualized may lead others to make judgments about the person to whom those fragments are attached. For example, dates of birth, a regular key term in database fields, tells the precise age of a person, often times when that information is not relevant.

In chapter two, "Design for Privacy in Multimedia Computing and Communications Environments," Victoria Bellotti argues that designing for privacy must be refined and improved in response to both users concerns and the multimedia environments' performance, recognizing that designers conceptions and metaphors cannot anticipate every contingency and behavior.

In chapter four, "Privacy-Enhancing Technologies: Typology, Critique, Vision," Herbert Burkert explains privacy enhancing technologies (PETs), and argues that they based on a limited understanding of privacy as degrees of negotiated anonymity. Burkert argues that privacy in PET design must also consider what he terms political privacy. "Political privacy regards the choices of anonymity as an integral part of a set of liberty rights, as one specific communication mode among others, and seeks to combine traditional privacy with more active participation-oriented elements" (135).

In addition to considering privacy as matter of process, a matter where each person can shape and reshape their identity and sense of self to fit the context for a relationship (be it business, personal, social, or political), the collection also offers pieces that look at legal, governmental, and business conceptions of privacy and how those conceptions have evolved with new technology.

Thus Simon Davies in chapter five, "Re- Engineering the Right to Privacy: How Privacy Has Been Transformed from a Right to a Commodity," argues that the concept of privacy has shifted "from a civil and political-rights issue motivated by polemic ideology to a consumer-rights issue underpinned by the principles of data protection and by the law of trading standards" (143).

And in chapter 10, "Interactivity As Though Privacy Mattered," Rohan Samarajiva looks at how increased interactivity is both a means to exploit and opportunity to enhance privacy. Interactivity depends upon trust and the willingness of a user to invest time and energy at service or site. However, the user should know what information might be gathered, how it will be used, and be given clear options for modifying those conditions. By allowing users to have a say in their own privacy levels, vendors will learn users' privacy concerns and will build a greater foundation for trust. Trust will help build a long term relationship of benefit to both user (buyer) and vendor.

Similarly, in "Cryptography, Secrets, and the Structuring of Trust," David J. Phillips writes a chapter that could easily have gone in Internet Besieged. Given the amount of data collected and generated by the collection of data, the data itself becomes both a powerful commodity and sensitive information whose misuse can hurt real people. People trusted to protect and make sure data is used properly are by definition people with power because these people have access to information that others lack; the information is entrusted to them with the understanding that they will ensure its proper management. This chapter focuses on the design of systems -- technological methods -- for establishing and carrying out the relationships configured by these trusts, including the use of passwords and logins, cryptography, and security algorithms. However, what matters is coming to trust the systems as well as the people behind them.

Read the full review of Internet Beseiged.

Contents Archive Sponsors Studies Contact