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The internet is no doubt one of the most important members of the aspects considered as the “modern wonders of the world”. A highly sophisticated technology, the internet has reduced the distance between individuals, groups and communities by allowing an easy way of interaction and communication regardless of the physical distance between them. In fact, socialization has become more efficient and easy with the internet and allied technologies.
Business, government administration, knowledge sharing and research have greatly benefitted from the technology since information gathering, dissemination, storage and sharing are no longer difficult tasks to handle, thanks to the internet technology.
Globalization has become more evident since the internet became a form of communication, socialization and a channel for conducting business. All these tasks involve a focus on information as the most important and crucial asset. However, with the high reliance on the internet technology as the superior channel of communication, governance, business process and information storage, a number of questions have emerged regarding the safety of the internet as a means of communication.
For instance, how safe is the information relayed or stored in the internet communication tools? What is the degree of privacy and confidentiality of information on the internet? What is the future of the internet as a means of communication, socialization, public governance and business administration? All these questions point to one important aspect of a digital world- a debate on the ethical and safety of our information privacy stored or passed through the internet. The purpose of this discussion is to analyze the issue of privacy of information on the internet.
In reality, the internet and allied technology have caused an ethical debate on our information privacy. Arguably, privacy of information on the internet is an ethical issue because the safety of information entrusted on the internet is compromised, especially at a time when the technology is becoming the sole process through which confidential, business, personal and administrative information is communicated.
The concept of privacy
The concept of privacy is yet to find a specific definition. While some authors perceive privacy as an actual form of moral or legal right for individuals, others have argued that it is generally wrong to think privacy as a concept of morals or rights. As early as the 1970s, the debate on privacy of electronic information was common among authors.
For instance, Posner (2002) suggested that the concept of privacy is better understood when viewed as a form of economic interest. He further argues that information on individuals should be taken as a form of private property, which has commercial value.
More recently, Clarke (1999) suggested that the concept of privacy is better understood when taken as an interest that individuals or groups have when striving to maintain personal space and freedom from interference by other individuals or organizations. In the modern context, most nations in the western worlds have resolved to view the concept of privacy as protection of data for individuals, groups or institutions.
In fact, most nations have resolved to treat this data as a fork of private assets that should be protected for the interest of individual rights. In the US, for instance, a debate on the concept of privacy of information as a legal right revolves around the philosophical and legal aspects of the tort law and the constitution. Moreover, the modern view of privacy of information is rooted in the extensive need for protection of personal property as a right for every individual.
With the concept of privacy of information revolving around the right for individuals to have their data or information respected as a personal asset, the internet seems to complicate how such information should be treated and protected. This is more evident when one considers the fact that information systems are normally shared, with some parties such as IT companies, internet providers, website owners, the government and other institutions having some good access to private and confidential information on the internet.
Thus, the concept of privacy and confidentiality of information on the internet has actually become a topic of debate on the ethics of the internet technology.
The internet and its impact on personal privacy of information
When the internet was booming during the 1990s, most authors attempted to describe the impact of the new form of communication on privacy and confidentiality of the information entrusted on the technology. For example, Wright and Kakalik (2007) observed that over 70% of internet users were concerned about the privacy and confidentiality of the information they shared on the internet. In yet another study, Benassi (1999) found that privacy was quickly becoming the major consumer issue in the booming internet business.
More recently, it has been found that privacy and security of information are the leading source of worry for internet users, especially in the modern context where the internet has become a major method for conducting business, socialization, research, public administration and storage of confidential data. So, why has the internet caused an ethical debate on the privacy of our information?
To answer this question, it is worth noting that there were concerns about the security and confidentiality of personal information even before the internet was invented. Thus, there is nothing new with respect to the concerns on the privacy of information associated with digital communication.
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However, the internet has increased concern about the privacy of information largely because it applies technology to gather, disseminate, communicate and store information about individuals and institutions (Clarke, 2008). The most important aspect to note is that the internet has escalated these concerns because it has come with a large number of applications that were not possible with the previous mediums of communication.
For instance, it has allowed communities to share crucial information, institutions to relate with their members, governments to deal with massive and crucial information on various public issues and individuals to communicate with ease regardless of the distance between them. Therefore, the internet has increased the magnitude of a number of privacy concerns due to its wide applicability.
The rise of the internet and the allied technologies has triggered the rise of an ethical debate over the safety and privacy of information. For instance, it has made it possible for the pre-existing concerns on information privacy to increase in magnitude and scale in a manner that could not be possible with the previous mediums of communication.
Although these concerns on the security and privacy of information existed prior to the invention of the internet technology, they have been enhanced by technology to an extent that the previous mediums of communication seems to be more secure than communication on the internet.
Secondly, a number of tools and techniques are unique to the internet. Such tools and techniques have come with additional threats to the security and privacy of information, which were not associated with the previous communication media. So, what threats to information security and privacy are enhanced by the internet?
Answering this question is essential in investigating whether the internet technology has caused an ethical debate on the privacy of communication and information. Arguably, a number of threats have arisen due to the intensive application of the internet and allied tools in communication.
Although some of these concerns were also associated with the previous communication methods, the internet seems to have caused their complexities to an extent that they can be considered as new forms of threats to modern communication. However, studies have shown that threats to the privacy of information on the internet can be classified into two broad categories- (a) “dataveillance” and gathering and (b) data mining and data exchange.
“Dataveillance” is a relatively new terminology in information technology that generally refers to the use of the internet technology as a tool of surveillance. It is the systematic application of internet tools and systems to monitor the actions and communications by people and organizations. In the modern context, the internet has increasingly become an important tool in data-monitoring and recording mechanism, without which it is difficult for individuals and organizations to deal with information.
In this case, the internet assumes an almost absolute power as the too for carrying out these tasks. However, due to this aspect of the internet, a threat to privacy and security of information on the internet is eminent. In this case, the threats posed to information privacy by the internet communication are actually unique to this communication media.
Websites, one of the main applications associated with the internet technology, have become a major source of information, communication and platforms for socialization, data sharing and conducting of organizational and personal business. They present a good and easy way of storing data, from where information can be obtained directly or indirectly from the activities of website users. Websites allow users to enter their information on WebForms.
These are actually some forms of online data gathering mechanisms that allow for an easy interaction between the user and the remote parties. Some websites such as email platforms are entirely meant for communication between their users, while others are search engines, business or corporate profiles, business platforms, or for other purposes. Despite their increasing use in various fields, websites have become a critical topic of ethical debate on the security and privacy of modern information.
Privacy and Trust on internet communication
Privacy of information on the internet is a crucial aspect of all organizations and individuals who use the internet for communication. It is the aim of every individual or organization to achieve the highest degree of privacy for the information communicated through the medium.
However, concerns over the trustworthiness of the internet and its allied tools such as websites and email corporations are an actual topic of ethical debate. In fact, most authors have shown that internet users continues to worry about the type of information they post on websites or communicate through such applications as emails on the internet.
Although corporations that conduct online business such as email service, search engines and e-commerce tend to assure their clients of the highest level of privacy, it is hard to trust organizations with information of high value, confidentiality and privacy. Users express their concern on the possibility of eavesdropping, hacking or use of malicious applications such as viruses to get an access to their information.
In fact, frequent cases of hacking, virus attacks and eavesdropping have increased over the last one decade, with even the most sophisticated information systems such as those used by organizations such as American security department being hacked and an easy access of information obtained. Financial organizations have also experienced such events, with some losing large amounts of resources to hackers.
Moreover, eavesdropping has become a common strategy through which illegal access of private and confidential information is obtained, where the perpetrators tend to subdue internet users to give their crucial information.
It is also worth noting that the internet has become an important tool through which cybercrime such as cyberstalking, bullying and other online crimes are taking place. With this in mind, it is worth noting that it is difficult to entrust the internet with crucial information due to the loopholes it has created. Cybercriminals such as hackers, eavesdroppers and other criminals have decreased the trust that users previously had on the internet as a way of storing, sharing and obtaining crucial and confidential information.
For instance, studies have shown that individuals and corporations have been reluctant to make online purchases for some crucial items, such as using their credit cards online due to fear of losing out to cybercriminals. On the other hand, corporations still rely on the old method of communication to send some confidential information such as credit card passwords in fear of a possible loss to cybercriminals.
In this way, the internet has lost substantial degree of trust due to its vulnerability to information loss and interference. In fact, it appears that the old models of communication such as surface mailing, faxing and telephone calls are more secure than the internet. This is because the internet platform is accessible for everyone and from anywhere.
In addition, internet technology is highly dynamic, with new applications and tools being developed every day to enhance communication. Similarly, new applications and tools are being developed every day to enhance cybercrime and escape the sophisticated measures put in place to secure information on the internet. In fact, it is worth noting that the dynamism in the internet technology increases with time, allowing both genuine and criminal users to execute their activities.
From this analysis, it is clear that the internet technology is a highly reliable method of communication, conducting business, administration and socialization. However, it has caused an ethical debate on the privacy and security of information because it is prone to interference and loss of information.
Despite its increasing importance in all sectors, internet communication raises an ethical issue because the safety of information entrusted on the internet is compromised, especially at a time when the technology is becoming the sole process through which confidential, business, personal and administrative information is communicated.
To solve the problems of privacy, most nations have decided to treat this data as a fork of private assets that should be protected for the interest of individual rights. In the US, for instance, a debate on the concept of privacy of information as a legal right revolves around the philosophical and legal aspects of the tort law and the constitution.
Benassi, P. (1999). TRUSTe: An Online Privacy Seal Program. Communications of the ACM, 42(2), 56-59
Clarke, R. (1999). Internet Privacy Concerns Confirm the Case for Intervention. Communications of the ACM, 42(2), 60-67
Clarke, R. (2008). Information Technology and Dataveillance. Communications of the ACM, 31(5), 498-512.
Posner, R. (2002). An Economic Theory of Privacy. New York: Springer
Wright, M., & Kakalik, J. (2007). The Erosion of Privacy. Computers and Society, 27(4), 22-25.