CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, November 30th -- Roger B. Blumberg

Langford III: Technology and the Scope of Ethics

Introduction: The Third Assignment

Unlike the first two writing assignments, the last can be done in a form other than the analytical essay. Although you're free to write an essay about a common question or theme raised by the readings in this unit, there are other possibilities:

The final assignment is due at the final exam (the date & time of which we need to discuss today), but you must send a description of what you're doing in fulfillment of the assignment to the listserv (chv-l@listserv.brown.edu) by next Tuesday (the 7th), and come prepared to discuss your project on the 9th.

Tavani's "Privacy and Security"

As Aaron may or may not be able to lead our discussion of this chapter, I've prepared the following:

The overriding theme of this book is whether the privacy solutions of the past are equal to the surveillance challenges of the future. When most of the world's privacy legislation was written, in the 1970s and 1980s, privacy invasions were national in character, discretely connected to an identifiable individual or set of individuals, perpetuated more often by agencies of the state than by private corporations, and generally more connected to the practices that surrounded independent, 'stand alone' databases. -- Colin J. Bennett and Rebecca Grant, in Visions of Privacy: Policy Choices for the Digital Age (University of Toronto Press, 1999), p. 3.)

Privacy is under siege."
-- David Brin, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? (Addison-Wesley, 1998)

You have no privacy. Get over it."
--Scott McNeely, CEO, Sun Microsystems

The rise of the World Wide Web, and the rapid expansion of networked computing in the 1990s, has given rise to a large literature on the ethics and politics of privacy. Beginning with the still influential 1890 Harvard Law Review article by Warren and Brandeis, called ""The Right to Privacy", one can find powerful arguments for privacy in American life that conceive privacy as alternately an unmitigated good, a self-evident right, a Constitutional right, a privileged good, and/or an unbounded good. At the same time, books like David H. Flaherty's Privacy in Colonial New England (University Press of Virginia, 1972), make clear that there has always been a struggle in the United States between the interests of the individual and the interests of the community/state.

What is perhaps unique to the most recent of technology-inspired discussions of privacy is the worry that we may have already passed into a state of affairs in which privacy has largely evaporated from our lives. One finds this worry most clearly in Scott McNeely's often-quoted remark, and in the various books about "the end of privacy" (e.g. The End of Privacy by Charles J. Sykes (St. Martins Press, 1999) and The End of Privacy by Reg Whitaker (The New Press, 1999)). An acceptance of a "new reality" in which privacy shouldn't be considered sacrosanct (if only because it apparently can't be so considered) can also be found in recent works like Amatai Etzioni's The Limits to Privacy (Basic Books, 1999).

Reading the article by Warren and Brandeis, however, one realizes that they were as attuned to the power of technology as an contemporary writer. Indeed, the phrase most often cited from the article is part of a larger paragraph too often ignored:

Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual what Judge Cooley calls the right "to be let alone" [10] Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that "what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops." For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons;[11] and the evil of invasion of privacy by the newspapers, long keenly felt, has been but recently discussed by an able writer.[12] The alleged facts of a somewhat notorious case brought before an inferior tribunal in New York a few months ago,[13] directly involved the consideration of the right of circulating portraits; and the question whether our law will recognize and protect the right to privacy in this and in other respects must soon come before our courts for consideration. (Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis. "The Right to Privacy," in Harvard Law Review, Vol. IV, December 15, 1890, No. 5)

So let's consider privacy afresh, in light of Tavani's chapter, and in light of recent changes in law and (perhaps) national sentiment since September 11, 2001. Consider the following questions:

For Thursday:: Read one article from the current issue of Ethics and Information Technology and come to class prepared to describe briefly the author's argument.

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