The advent of the Internet age has been characterized by an unprecedented proliferation of communication and availability of information. However, the dark side is that such developments also raise questions pertaining to the ethical value of privacy: either through direct efforts by stakeholders to access confidential information or through simple ignorance on the part of Internet users, the enormous resources of the Internet also imply that the Internet, used improperly, could seriously threaten the right to individual privacy.
The present sample essay will explore some of the issues that have emerged around this subject over recent times. In particular, it will discuss the National Security Administration (NSA), Snowden, Facebook, and the value of transparency. A key theme that will emerge over the course of the exposition is that in general, Americans believe that whereas they have a right to personal privacy, organizations have a duty to respect the value of transparency. This type of document would likely be found in a tech blog or as a writing assignment.
The NSA and Snowden
To start with, then, the NSA has been in the news recently as a result of the emergence of evidence that the organization had been unlawfully spying on the communications of Americans. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has written:
“Secret government documents, published by the media in 2013, confirm the NSA obtains full copies of everything that is carried along major domestic fiber optic cable networks” (paragraph 4).
Such operations were conducted as part of a surveillance program known as Prism. The British newspaper The Guardian was instrumental in reporting on this issue as it was in the process of emerging. For example, in a news article from 2013, Greenwald and MacAskill have written:
“The Guardian has verified the authenticity of the document, a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation—classified as top secret with no distribution to foreign allies—which was apparently used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the program” (paragraph 3).
In any event, it is by now an indisputable fact that the NSA has in fact been spying on American citizens.
From a historical perspective, the activities of the NSA can be understood as related to the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that occurred in 2001. During this time, for example, the Patriot Act was passed, which essentially consisted of provisions that infringed on civil liberties in the name of national security (see Library of Congress). The idea was that in a time of national crisis, individuals should be willing to compromise of some of the individual rights for the sake of the well-being of the broader community as a whole.
This would include the right to private communication, insofar as such privacy would potentially undermine the security of the nation. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it was precisely the provisions of legislation such as the Patriot Act that the NSA has used to justify its activities; and rumors of unlawful spying have been present since at least the year 2005. It was only recently, though, that hard evidence emerged regarding these dubious activities.
The role of Edward Snowden in regards to online privacy
Edward Snowden was the man who was primarily responsible for bringing the domestic surveillance activities of the NSA to the light of the public eye. Not only did the documents leaked by Snowden reveal that the NSA had in fact been engaging in domestic surveillance, it also revealed that it was primarily ordinary Americans who had nothing to do with any kind of investigation who were getting caught by the surveillance. As Gellman, Tate, and Soltani have put it:
“Ordinary Internet users, American and non-American alike, far outnumber legally targeted foreigners in the communications intercepted by the National Security Agency from U.S. digital networks. . . . The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are catalogued and recorded nevertheless” (paragraphs 1 and 7).
In other words, the NSA was found to have violated the online privacy of Americans not simply within the context of legitimate investigations but rather as a matter of course, as if the value of individual privacy were no longer even a relevant factor to take into consideration when planning surveillance actions.
Such revelations have made a significant impact on the perceptions of Americans regarding online privacy. For example, Malden, writing on behalf of the Pew Internet Research Project, has delineated some key statistics regarding Americans’ perceptions of online privacy; and among other things, it has been found that
“81% feel not very or not at all secure using social media sites when they want to share private information with another trusted person or organization,” and “57% feel insecure sending private information via email” (paragraph 7).
Moreover, correlations were found between increased levels of insecurity on the one hand and greater awareness of the NSA’s surveillance program on the other. In short, the events surrounding NSA and Snowden have had a strong effect on the popular culture of electronic communication within the United States. A strong majority of people now seem to take it almost for granted that some stakeholder or another is illicitly monitoring their private communications, and that they must take steps in order to protect themselves from such invasions of personal privacy. The general mindset within the nation regarding online privacy is thus marked by a very high level of suspicion and mistrust.
The case of Facebook and online privacy
At this point in the discussion, it may be useful to turn attention to a specific forum for online communication: Facebook. Despite denials from the founder of the company, there would seem to be a significant popular perception that Facebook did in fact collude with the NSA and gave up the personal information of its users to the government. Whether this is or is not true, it is rather revealing about the level of trust that Facebook users have in the integrity of the company. According to Debatin, Lovejoy, Horn, and Hughes, many Facebook users seem to exhibit an ambivalent behavioral trend in which they both report being highly aware of privacy issues and yet nevertheless upload significant amounts of personal information onto their Facebook accounts.
These researchers have addressed this issue from a somewhat anthropological perspective and concluded that the paradox can be explained by how ritualistically integrated social media sites become into users’ lives:
“Social network sites deeply penetrate their users’ everyday life and, as pervasive technology, tend to become invisible once they are widely adopted, ubiquitous and taken for granted” (Debatin et al. 83).
This significantly reduces users’ practical concern for privacy even as they understand the concern in theory.
This also calls attention to a broader point regarding online privacy: the violation of privacy can occur not only because of direct malfeasance on the part of a given stakeholder but also due to ignorance on the part of Internet users. For example, a given Facebook user may upload compromising photographs onto his account without even thinking about the fact that (for example) his boss could access those photographs in a fully legal and legitimate way.
Something similar can be said about other forms of online communication as well: insofar as people are either not aware that they are being watched or do not take adequate action on the implications of this awareness, violations of privacy could occur in a “passive” as opposed to “active” way. That is, Internet users would make their lives essentially open to the public without even realizing they are doing so; and anyone who wanted the users’ information could simply take it without even being in violation of the law. In this context, the NSA revelations may have ultimately had at least some positive effect, insofar as they have clearly contributed to Americans becoming more aware of the nature of the dangers at play (see Maden).
Privacy versus transparency
It is worth turning now to a more careful reflection on the ethical principles that are involved when discussing the subject of online privacy. In particular, one perceives something of a double standard that nevertheless is not illegitimate. On the one hand, when the NSA conducts a secret surveillance program against Americans, this is generally interpreted to mean that the NSA fundamentally lacks transparency, which is unacceptable for a governmental organization within a democratic society.
The general principle that emerges here, then, is that organizations are expected to be transparent toward their constituents, but that individual constituents are not therefore obliged to be transparent in turn toward the organization. This proposition would seem to be informed by a fundamentally libertarian political perspective, where libertarianism can be understood in the broadest sense as a
“political philosophy that affirms the rights of individuals to liberty, to acquire, keep, and exchange their holdings, and considers the protection of individual rights the primary role of the state” (Vallentyne and Bas van der Vossen, (paragraph 1).
Essentially, privacy is among the most individualistic of all ethical values; and whenever one insists on the value of privacy, one implicitly also insists on the priority of the individual over the community. Thus, if it is inappropriate for the NSA to spy on its own people, then this is because the NSA was only established by the constituent power of the people in the first place, and its fundamental obligation would thus be to protect the rights of those people (i.e. Americans) and not to violate those rights.
As a caveat, though, it should be noted that the extent to which this logic obtains depends to a certain extent on how much danger one imagines the community as a whole to be in. In general, when the existence of a community is threatened, emergency powers are granted to executives, and individual citizens are expected to compromise on their own rights until the danger has passed. When does this invasion of online privacy contridict the United States Consitution?
The logic here would be that if the community were to be annihilated, then this would cause serious harm to all members of the community. This would explain why it is only an appeal to national security that can even potentially justify activities such as the NSA’s Prism surveillance program. In this context, Snowden’s revelations may have been especially devastating because they showed that much of the information collected by the NSA had nothing to do with national security, and that the NSA thus had no right to violate its basic obligation regarding transparency.
In summary, this essay has consisted of a discussion of issues regarding online privacy in the modern United States. Subjects addressed have included the NSA and Snowden, the case of Facebook, and the interplay within the ethical values of privacy and transparency. Ultimately, these issues are related to political questions regarding the meaning of democracy, the rights and prerogatives of the individual, and the obligations that organizations have toward their constituents. Understood in this way, issues regarding online privacy merely continue discussions that have historically been in progress for quite a long time.
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Debatin, Berhard, Jennette P. Lovejoy, Ann-Kathrin Horn, and Brittany N. Hughes. “Facebook and Online Privacy: Attitudes, Behaviors, and Unintended Consequences.” Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 15 (2009): 83-108.
Electronic Frontier Foundation. NSA Spying on Americans. 2014. Web. 1 Dec. 2014. .
Gellman, Barton, Julie Tate, and Askan Soltani. “In NSA-Intercepted Data, Those Not Targeted Far Outnumber the Foreigners Who Are.” The Washington Post 5 Jul. 2014. Web. 1 Dec. 2014. 11e4-8572-4b1b969b6322_story.html>.
Greenwald, Glenn, and Ewen MacAskill. “NSA Prism Program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and Others.” The Guardian 7 Jun. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.
Library of Congress. “H.R.3162: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT ACT) Act of 2001.” THOMAS, 2001. Web. 1 Dec. 2014. bin/bdquery/z?d107:H.R.3162:>.
Maden, Mary. “Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era.” Pew Research Internet Project, 12 Nov. 2014. Web. 1 Dec. 2014. .
Vallentyne, Peter, and Bas van der Vossen. “Libertarianism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2014. Web. 1 Dec. 2014. .