Privacy’s Personal Powers: Access and Control in the Digital Realm

On April 14, The Washington Post and The Guardian U.S. shared one of the most prestigious awards in American journalism: The Pulitzer Prize for public service.

The newspapers won the coveted gold medal for their collections of stories about the U.S. National Security Agency breaking into Google and Yahoo data centers to collect personal information, mostly phone calls and emails, on multimillions of people around the world. The agency’s global surveillance program, including on Americans and U.S. allies, sparked fervent debates about individual privacy versus national security.

Video Credit: Barton Gellman on reporting on NSA surveillance on YouTube

In a Washington Post story about the public service award, staff reporter Paul Farhi wrote that the newspaper’s Executive Editor Martin Baron said: “In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy.”

At the epicenter of the National Security Agency’s disputed surveillance practices are two questions: Who has access to people’s personal information? Who controls people’s personal information? The answers depend on conceptual definitions of privacy, according to Helen Nissenbaum in Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life.

In her 2010 book, Nissenbaum offers various definitions of privacy, including three that provide two concepts about personal information: (1) privacy as “a constraint on access” to people’s information, and (2) privacy as “a form of control” of people’s information (p. 70).

Philosopher Jeffrey Reiman: Privacy is “the condition under which other people are deprived of access to either (1) some information about you or (2) some experience of you” (p. 70).

Legal philosopher Charles Fried: Privacy “is not simply an absence of information about us in the minds of others, rather it is the control we have over information about ourselves” (p. 71).

Legal scholar Anita Allen “hybridizes control and access” with a three-tier definition that incudes (1) physical privacy, (2) informational privacy, “control over personal information” and (3) proprietary privacy, “characterized as control over names, likenesses and repositories of personal information” (p. 71).

Besides being central to the National Security Agency debate, the three definitions of privacy also are at the heartbeat of social media. Without people providing personal information, social engagement websites, such as Facebook, Tumblr, Foursquare, Tagged and Instagram, would be void of content.

Knowing that privacy is their Achilles heel, most social-media companies have elaborate policies on who has access and who controls the user-generated content on their websites. For example, Facebook is about to change its privacy settings one more time in an endless evolution.

But do any of those social-media company policies on privacy really matter, given what the National Security Agency managed to pull off right under the noses of the tech titans? Should people just accept that once they provide personal information in social-media realms, they have relinquished access and surrendered control to keeping it private, much like the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions on telecommunications within the Third Party Doctrine?

The ongoing controversy about the National Security Agency’s Internet-centric surveillance practices means definitions of privacy will continue to garner tumultuous debate, especially in regards to access and control of personal information. Many people, especially Americans, don’t equate participating in the digital-media realms with completely forfeiting their right of privacy.

In fact, some American entertainers, such as actors, musicians and athletes, maintain that they retain access and control of their images in the digital realms, even though they are public figures, and their claims are much in keeping with Allen’s definition of proprietary privacy (p. 71).

In her Oscar-winning performance in the film, The Blind Side, actress Sandra Bullock wears an expensive-looking wristwatch, but she has filed a lawsuit against a watchmaker for connecting her name to its product in web-based ads. In a more recent dispute, former Grey’s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl has accused a drugstore chain of using Twitter to violate her right of privacy.

Video Credit: The Blind Side Movie Trailer on YouTube

If Bullock and Heigl can assert on legal grounds that they retain access and control of their personal information, including the use of their images and names, regardless of their public status in the digital realm, then the masterminds behind the National Security Agency’s exposed surveillance program will continue to face challenges about trespassing on millions of people’s personal powers of privacy.





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3 responses to “Privacy’s Personal Powers: Access and Control in the Digital Realm

  1. oksana Cobb

    I really enjoyed your post Norma. Nice job summarizing Nissenbaum’s two concepts of privacy from the three definitions she provided. I believe privacy debate will be at the center of our technological and scientific development for a very long time. But it seems that with every new cool gadget or break-through device on the market, more and more aspects of our private lives become a public domain.
    Interestingly enough, the social media users typically favor convenience over privacy. Josh Harris predicted the future of online experiences fully dominating our lives in his film “We Live in Public” (2009). People become all too eager to reveal some of their most private and intimate details for the fifteen seconds of fame and to feel like a micro-celebrity or a public figure. Even before the existence of Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Josh Harris foresaw online social networks and painted a bizarre and disturbing world of human interaction with people trapped in the virtual boxes for all to see and have access to. We engage in “media exhibitionism” and enjoy the fruits of technology and convenience without putting too much thought about the consequences of being under constant surveillance by government agencies and large companies.
    With many new popular ICT devices on the market such as Google Glass, iPhone newer series, etc. we should ask ourselves how much more of our privacy we are willing to give up and make an informed and conscious choice. How much of our personal information will be sent back to the developing companies, and how will they track our every move. I remember laughing at the commercial at the following link when the iPhone5 first came out:
    It starts with the words: “New iPhone 5 nSa is the best surveillance device to date. It is a meticulously designed tracker, recorder and data collector.” It is funny, of course, but, as they say, there is truth to every joke…

  2. impressonion

    I find it quite interesting that the issue of privacy starts at such a basic level. It’s not that we are just concerned about having privacy—we are still debating about what privacy really IS. Nissenbaum’s explanations of varying concepts and definitions of the idea show that many competing interest groups are fighting for the right just to define privacy, let alone to maintain it as a basic human right.

    And yet despite all of this debate, it is highly likely that the definition of privacy will not only remain somewhat fluid, it will also be shaped less by the people who are currently debating it, and more by new generations of young people who are using social media and new technologies without even considering the deeper issues involved. The youngest users are often the first to be early adopters. They (and many of us in this class) accept whatever terms and conditions a website or an app requires without even a slight glance at the requirements within. It is as Oksana says, convenience takes priority over privacy.

    Not only that, but because young people are so deeply involved with molding social media and being molded by it, they are generating a new definition of privacy by their very—typically unintentional—actions. Teenagers today do not even understand privacy on the same level as adults, at least not when it comes to the digital world. They surely still understand physical privacy, and the need for privacy to keep their parents out of their business. But when it comes to sharing things online, the concept of privacy almost ceases to exist for many. It is a share and share alike world, the consequences of which only time will tell.

  3. Hello, the whole thing is going nicely here and ofcourse every one
    is sharing facts, that’s actually fine, keep up writing.

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