Privacy or Paranoia?

Does electronic monitoring have a chilling effect on your freedom?

"The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard."

George Orwell, 1984

Writing in 1948, George Orwell envisioned a world of total control where government Ministries of Truth, Love and Peace dispensed lies, hate and war. Every movement and every utterance of the citizens was spied on by the Thought Police so that even the smallest facial expression could give away ones true feelings.

While a powerful piece of fiction, Orwell's book wasn't a terribly accurate prediction of the future. The year 1984 has come and gone with no Ministry of Love being formed. And television is an inert, one-way medium which only a few schizophrenics think is interactive enough to spy on them or receive their thoughts.

What we have today is quite different from Orwell's vision with one major exception: we are rapidly losing any semblance of privacy. The invasion of our privacy, however, is not coming from a centralized, controlling government (although the government is surely aiding and abetting in the process). Most of us are not being tracked by the FBI or followed by covert CIA agents. We are, though, being watched every minute - or at least every minute that we spend money, communicate over computer networks, or do anything else that might be of interest to marketers. In this world where almost every transaction takes place over networks, from buying groceries with an ATM card to reserving a concert seat through a ticket agency, we consumers are inadvertently contributing to large databanks of information about our activities.

How you react to this fact will depend on which side of the electronic "fence" you are on. Database marketers (those folks who buy and sell databases of information and do mass mailings from them) maintain that they are doing consumers a favor by gathering more precise information about their product choices and tastes. Sometime in the future, according to them, enough will be known about you that you will only receive advertising about products in which you truly have an interest. This will save marketers money (thus lowering product prices) and will be more convenient for you as a consumer.

The other side of this, though, is knowing that somewhere out there -in some vast data mine - is a record of everything you've ever done of a transactional nature. Some thing, some corporate entity, knows that you regularly buy hemorrhoid medicine but that you haven't bought a condom for 23 months. It knows about the six-packs that you consume on the weekends, and that you had a cold last week because you bought one of those 24-hour cold medicines. It knows where you vacation and how up-to-date your VCR is. It knows you've only been to the opera once in the last five years (but that was also the same day that you bought those condoms, so it must have been a date - and one-time date at that).

Feeling a little uneasy? Why? After all, this isn't sensitive information, is it? It's not your medical records, it's not even your credit data. Why do you care if somewhere there is a record of everything you've bought at the grocery store or what you do for entertainment?

It all comes down to the important but hard-to-define concept of freedom. Like the dilemma of laboratory experiments where the act of experimenting can change the behavior being studied, we will act differently if we know or believe we are being watched, even if the results of that watching are not immediately punitive. As soon as we start thinking: "what if someone's watching?" we have lost some immeasurable amount of freedom.

The Internet community rallied strongly against the censorship of digital speech that was embodied in the Communications Decency Act, but we've failed to recognize a less overt form of censorship, and that is the censorship that comes from being watched. Every action on the World Wide Web most probably results in a server-side transaction being logged. And depending on who provides your Internet access, logging may also take place on the provider end. Employers have free legal rein to log and monitor all of their employees' online transactions, including the content of their e-mail and all of their Web accesses. There's quite a market today for client-side Internet "filtering" software that also records all online activity and it is mainly aimed at employers.

Our online communications can reveal more about us of a personal nature than our shopping habits do. Through the Internet people research medical questions, join support groups, pursue religion and politics, and organize around labor issues. We might also follow the news and correspond with friends. How would you feel if you thought that all of your activity on the Internet were being logged - every web page you visit, every search you do? Are there sites you would hesitate to visit under those circumstances? Losing our privacy in this arena affects our freedom to pursue ideas, and in that sense as it acts as a form of censorship.

In the rush to use the Internet to advertise products and reach consumers, gathering marketing data from online transactions is fast becoming the norm. But most Web transactions merely identify the host machine the access is coming from, and especially in the case of large online providers with dynamically assigned IP addresses, this gives very little information about the human who is actually viewing the site. Marketers are using online registration, contests and encouraging site feedback as a way to obtain information about individual customers who access a Web site. Once you register at a site every access can be linked to you as a person. And yes, this is legal.

As we saw in the furor that arose when Lexis-Nexis introduced its P-Trak database service on the Internet, there is a strong desire for privacy in our population. But the Department of Commerce, which is guiding the legislation relating to the administrations plans for the Information Highway, has already produced a report advising that the online industry should aim for self-regulation, not law. This means that consumer awareness will be the key to preventing the World Wide Web from becoming our generation's Big Brother.

As computer professionals we have an important role to play in the area of privacy. Where naïve users are convinced that computers are the culprits in our loss of privacy, those of us who design and build systems know that any decisions about data gathering and storage are part of the system development process, not inherent in the machine. It is possible to gather and process a wide range of useful marketing information and protect the privacy of individuals at the same time. By being aware of the privacy implications of the systems we develop we can encourage solutions that promote free speech and thought.

Already some organizations are formed around this issue, among them the Electronic Privacy Information Center (, the Internet Privacy Coalition ( and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility ( These sites will lead you to many other organizations and a wealth of information about a wide variety of privacy issues. Log on and get informed. The biggest battles are yet to come.

Karen Coyle
Western Regional Director,
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility


Copyright Karen Coyle 1996

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