3. Technological Challenges to Privacy

Many concerns have been expressed concerning the privacy implications of technologies in common use today. A common theme is that they contribute to an unprecedented capacity for surveillance. Roger Clarke, an Australian information systems expert has used the term "dataveillance" to connote the "systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions or communications of one or more persons".8 The systematic collection of information made possible by information technologies gives rise to the real danger of the gradual erosion of individual liberties through the automation, integration and interconnection of many small, separate record keeping systems, each of which alone may seem innocuous, and wholly justifiable. The improvements in information handling capability also gives rise to the tendency to use more data and to disguise less. New technologies creates new types of records and analysis never before possible. Data can become aggregated and disaggregated in new ways, resulting in an expanded ability to identify individuals. Information previously buried in paper files and very difficult for unauthorized parties to retrieve, become easily accessible through on-line databases connected to the Internet. Further, much of this activity may be unknown and undetected by users.

There has been constant tension between the demand for privacy protection and the development of information and communications technologies for more than a century. The development of photography and tape-recording equipment in the late 1880's led to the first inquiry into whether the law could protect personal privacy.9 Basic ideas about privacy protection emerged in the 1970's, dating back to the beginnings of the "information society" and the introduction of computers into various areas of social and economic life. In that period, governments had to deal with the public's growing concern that the greater need for information, and the proliferation of computerized systems, would result in a reduction in the power of individuals to control the personal information gathered and retained about them. Advances in computer technology and telecommunications in the 1990's has led to a new round of domestic and international legislative reform, with the object of restoring the balance between personal privacy and the technology that threatens it.10

A number of themes run through the literature concerning the threats posed by new information and communications technologies to privacy. One theme relates to the unprecedented capacity to collect personal information from individuals and the threats to privacy engendered thereby. Many techniques are used to collect personal data. Every time a telephone call is made, goods are purchased using a credit card, health services are procured, or the Internet is surfed, data is captured and recorded. A great deal of information is unknowingly volunteered by individuals such as by filling out a questionnaire or registration form. Moreover, some consumers are willing to disclose a great deal of personal information about themselves in return for free products or give-aways.11 In this electronic age, each transaction leaves a data trail that can be compiled to provide a detailed electronic record of personal histories and preferences. The collection of personal information is subtlely increased by its electronic character. It happens not in a clandestine conspiratorial fashion, but in the common place transactions of shopping, voting, phoning, driving and working.12

Developments in technology have spawned a myriad of new methods of gathering information electronically. Many technologies create new types of records and which enable analysis never before possible. Information that traditionally has not been thought of as personal in nature, or that had been publically available previously without adverse affect, can take on a new and privacy sensitive character when digitized and combined with other data.13

In the information age, personal information is a valuable commodity and selling personal information is big business. It is the raw material that fuels a multi-billion dollar industry.14 Information has taken on a new character. It has passed from being an instrument through which we acquire and manage other assets to being a primary asset itself.15 Personal data is valued because it enables detailed information about a specific individual's behaviour, personal preferences and demographic particulars to be used for micro-targeted customized solicitations.16 Rapid development of networks and information processing makes it possible for large quantities of personal information to be acquired, exchanged, stored and matched very quickly. Marketers are moving from mass to targeted marketing, a trend facilitated by the Internet, as marketers can more readily acquire information on individuals and send e-mail ads and display website ads very cheaply.17

The "commoditization" of information is facilitated by data mining techniques which use discovery-based approaches in which pattern-matching and other algorithms are used to discover key relationships in data, previously unknown to the user. Data-matching can reveal associations, sequences, classifications, clusters and forecasting types of information hidden in data. These applications can be used across all sectors including retail, finance, manufacturing, health, insurance and utilities.18 Personal information is subjected to various forms of computer-matching with other information sources. This process of identification and selection of individual consumers by deductively associating information from different sources facilitates the case of personal information for purposes wholly different from the original purposes for which it was gathered.

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