18 May 2008

Personal Privacy: In Your Hands

In the Information Age--as in any other--our living world operates in a context which is both anticipatory of and reactant to the reigning knowledge of our wants and needs. The difference is that today, that knowledge is predominately driven by objective information-gathering systems. Businesses collect data on current or potential customers via computer methods, largely through the Internet.

As follows, who-knows-who has given way to what-knows-what. Traditional pre-Internet business models were based heavily on personal relationships, in which privacy was at the discretion of the individual. What wasn't said or wasn't written wasn't known. Today, a plethora of information is collected about consumers without their awareness or provided consent. Is this wrong?

I say, no. We do not live in the grips of Big Brother; the world's linked information is not being sent to one centralized power, or database. Information that is collected by various agencies generally is related to the product or service that is being provided to the consumer, and is used to further the welfare of one stakeholder or the other. Of course, there are companies that sell their cross-referenced databases of customers' emails and interests to other companies--but still--this does not imply harm.

Personal privacy, I believe, is in the hands of its owner. As a derivative of an argument made by James Rachels in 1975, "the loss of control of relationships that comes with the loss of control of information" (Ethical Theory and Business, 438) is at the heart of the issue. When personal, once-confidential information is freely shared with a third party, a relationship is established which empowers the knowledge-recipient to turn around and use that and follow-on information as he or she deems appropriate.

The bottom line in the Information Age is that consumers should treat individual-organization relationships just as they would individual-individual relationships, by sharing personal data with those whom they trust most and with those whom an open-knowledge relationship is most critical. This means on the Internet, too.

Businesses, to be ethically involved in personal privacy matters, should create simple stop-gap measures such as age minimums and qualifying questions before allowing a registrant to create a new online or brick and mortar account. Falsified identities, while a possibility, seem to be beyond the practical scope of due privacy assurance process.


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