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.