BOX 1.1

Some Illustrative Tradeoffs in Privacy

  • Government or privately controlled cameras monitoring the movement of ordinary citizens in public places for the stated purpose of increasing public safety.

  • Government collection of data on peoples’ political activities for the stated purpose of increasing public safety or homeland security.

  • Collection by a retailer of personal information about purchases for the stated purpose of future marketing of products to specific individuals.

  • Collection by a bank of personal financial information about an individual for the stated purpose of evaluating his or her creditworthiness for a loan.

  • Aggregation by insurers of medical data obtained through third parties for the stated purpose of deciding on rates or availability of health insurance for an individual.

  • Provision of information to law enforcement agencies about library patrons (including who they are and what they read or saw in the library) for the stated purpose of increasing public safety or homeland security, and a prohibition of discussing or acknowledging that this has been done.

  • Availability of public government records (including criminal records, family court proceedings, real estate transactions, and so on, and formerly only available in paper format) on the World Wide Web for the stated purpose of increasing the openness of government.

  • Geographic tracking of cell-phone locations at all times for the stated purpose of enabling emergency location.

Note also that privacy concerns are often grounded in information that may be used for purposes other than a stated purpose. Indeed, in each of the examples given above, another possible—and less benign—purpose might easily be envisioned and thus might change entirely one’s framing of a privacy issue.

vides some illustrative examples). Advocates for various positions who argue vigorously for a given policy thus run the risk of casting their arguments in unduly broad terms. Though rhetorical excesses are often a staple of advocacy, in truth the factors driving the information age rarely create simple problems with simple solutions.

Perhaps the best known of the general tradeoffs in the privacy debate is that which contrasts privacy with considerations of law enforcement and national security. At this writing, there is considerable debate over the Bush administration’s use of warrantless wiretapping in its counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda. Furthermore, the USA PATRIOT Act, passed in the immediate wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and extended and amended in early 2006, changed a number of privacy-related laws in order to facilitate certain law



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