Engaging privacy and information technology in a digital age

Privacy is a growing concern in the United States and around the world. The spread of the Internet and the seemingly unbounded options for collecting, saving, sharing, and comparing information trigger con­sumer worries; online practices of businesses and government agencies present new ways to compromise privacy; and e-commerce and technolo­gies that permit individuals to find personal information about each other only begin to hint at the possibilities.

The literature on privacy is extensive, and yet much of the work that has been done on privacy, and notably privacy in a context of pervasive information technology, has come from groups with a single point of view (e.g., civil liberties advocates, trade associations) and/or a mission that is associated with a point of view (e.g., regulatory agencies) or a slice of the problem (e.g., privacy in a single context such as health care).

Many of the groups that have looked at privacy have tended to be singular in their expertise. Advocacy groups are typically staffed by law­yers, and scholarship activities within universities are conducted largely from the perspective of individual departments such as sociology, politi­cal science, or law. Business/management experts address demand for personal information (typically for marketing or e-commerce). Although a few economists have also examined privacy questions (mostly from the standpoint of marketable rights in privacy), the economics-oriented pri­vacy literature is significantly less extensive than the literature on intellec­tual property or equitable access. In an area such as privacy, approaches from any single discipline are unlikely to “solve” the problem, making it important to assess privacy in a manner that accounts for the implications of technology, law, economics, business, social science, and ethics.

Against this backdrop, the National Research Council believed that the time was ripe for a deep, comprehensive, and multidisciplinary exam­ination of privacy in the information age: How are the threats to privacy evolving, how can privacy be protected, and how can society balance the interests of individuals, businesses, and government in ways that pro­mote privacy reasonably and effectively?

A variety of conversations in late 2000 with privacy advocates in nonprofit organizations, and with private foundation officials about what their organizations have not been supporting, and ongoing conversa­tions with computer scientists and other analysts who focus on infor­mation technology trends indicated a dearth of analytical work on the subject of online privacy that incorporated expertise about key technolo­gies together with other kinds of expertise. Without adequate technical expertise, information technology tends to be treated as a black box that has impacts on society; with such expertise, there can be a more realistic exploration of interactions among technical and nontechnical factors and of design and implementation alternatives, some of which can avoid or diminish adverse impacts.

For these reasons, the National Research Council established the Committee on Privacy in the Information Age. The committee’s analytical charge had several elements (see Chapter 1). The committee was to survey and analyze the causes for concern—risks to personal information associ­ated with new technologies (primarily information technologies, but from time to time biotechnologies as appropriate) and their interaction with nontechnology-based risks, the incidence of actual problems relative to the potential for problems, and trends in technology and practice that will influence impacts on privacy. Further, the charge called for these analyses to take into account changes in technology; business, government, and other organizational demand for and supply of personal information; and the increasing capabilities for individuals to collect and use, as well as disseminate, personal information. Although certain areas (e.g., health and national security) were singled out for special attention, the goal was to paint a big picture that at least sketched the contours of the full set of interactions and tradeoffs.

The charge is clearly a very broad one. Thus, the committee chose to focus its primary efforts on fundamental concepts of privacy, the laws sur­rounding privacy, the tradeoffs in a number of societally important areas, and the impact of technology on conceptions of privacy.

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