Key to any discussion of privacy is a clear specification of what is at stake (what is being kept private) and the parties against which privacy is being invoked (who should not be privy to the information being kept private). For example, one notion of privacy involves confidentiality or secrecy of some specific information, such as preventing disclosure of an individual’s library records to the government or to one’s employer or parents. A second notion of privacy involves anonymity, as reflected in, for example, the unattributed publication of an article or an unattributable chat room discussion that is critical of the government or of an employer, or an unidentified financial contribution to an organization or a political campaign.

These two simple examples illustrate a number of essential points regarding privacy. First, the party against which privacy is being invoked may have some reason for wanting access to the information being denied. A government conducting a terrorist investigation may want to know what a potential suspect is reading; an employer may be concerned that an article contains trade secrets or company-proprietary information and want to identify the source of that information. Privacy rights are invoked to prevent the disclosure of such information. Second, some kind of balancing of competing interests may be necessary. Third, balancing is a task that is essentially political—and thus the political and societal power of various interest groups is critical to understanding how tradeoffs and compromises on privacy develop.


This report focuses on three major drivers of the vast changes affecting notions, perceptions, and expectations of privacy: technological change, societal shifts, and discontinuities in circumstance.

  • Technological change refers to major differences in the technological environment of today as compared to that existing many decades ago (and which has a major influence on today’s social and legal regime governing privacy). The hardware underlying information technology has become vastly more powerful; advances in processor speed, memory sizes, disk storage capacity, and networking bandwidth allow data to be collected, stored, and analyzed in ways that were barely imaginable a decade ago. Other technology drivers are just emerging, including sensor networks that capture data and connect that data to the real world. Increasingly ubiquitous networking means that more and more information is online. Data stores are increasingly available in electronic form for analysis. New algorithms have been developed that allow extraction of information from a sea of collected data. The net result is that new kinds of data are being

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