Comparison essay on technology and the erosion of privacy

< >In their articles, respectively Invasion of Privacy and High-Tech Crime Fighting The Threat to Civil Liberties , the opinions of authors Joshua Quitner and Gene Stephens, who are possessed of quite dissimilar credentials, are strikingly similar. Stephens, being a professor in the College of Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina, naturally presents his arguments from a legal standpoint. He cites specific constitutional amendments and how the new technologies will affect them. Quitner, who is a journalist and frequent contributor to Newsday and Wired magazines, has a viewpoint that, although similar, has a more personal flavor. He gives examples from his own life and quotes other sources from the business and professional worlds. Despite the difference in tone, both authors see the ever-increasing onslaught of technology as encroaching on personal privacy and stripping away our civil rights one piece at a time.

< >To elaborate, Stephens opens his article with, “Modern technology and the US Constitution appear to be on a collision course.”, and Quitner opens his with “…how we’re headed for an even more wired, underregulated, overintrusive, privacy-deprived society.” The meaning here is clear, our rights are being trampled on, and we, like the proverbial lambs to the slaughter, are not only allowing it to happen, we’re encouraging it. In his piece, Quitner points out that we are all willingly allowing our personal information to become public by simply going about our daily lives, e.g. surfing the net, using credit cards, being photographed by surveillance cameras etc. He contends that, short of becoming a Unabomber-like hermit, there really is no avoiding the ‘wired world’. For his part Stephens takes it a step further and cites the 4th Amendment, that “…probable cause must be shown before government agents can search and seize one’s person or property.” or places where he has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” and goes on to discuss audio and video technologies that can see and hear through walls. He also alludes to the fact that credit histories and the like are, or could be, added to a central database in what he calls a “life-to-death dossier” in order to recover information about a person at any given time regardless of whether they are under surveillance or not. Further he suggests the possibility of soon to be available technologies capable of monitoring brain waves and thought patterns. Here he cites the 5th Amendment and ‘Miranda warnings’, that a person is under no obligation to help law enforcement in any way to prove it’s case if he or she is accused of a crime. The Fifth Amendment says the law must prove it’s own case but in the face of such technologies, essentially the ability to use one’s own unexpressed thoughts against them, will this really be feasible in the future?

< >Quitner quotes Carole Lane, author of the book Naked in Cyberspace: How to Find Personal Information Online as saying, ”Most people would be astounded to know what’s out there, in a few hours, sitting at my computer, beginning with no more than your name and address, I can find out what you do for a living, the names and ages of your spouse and children, what kind of car you drive, the value of your house and how much taxes you pay on it.” He also cites several cases in which medical records were used to compromise peoples personal privacy. For his part Stephens references the 1st Amendment and the ever-expanding database of personal information being collected. He suggests that our every move is being scrutinized and the information is freely available for anyone willing to take the time to find it. This raises questions as to how a person can feel free to do or think what they want in a society with the capability of monitoring their every move right down to the thoughts in their heads.

< > Both authors reference George Orwell’s 1984 with Stephens asserting that “Orwell’s 1984 has been surpassed, and Huxley’s Brave New World is technologically feasible.” and Quitner saying, “…Our privacy—mine and yours—has already disappeared, not in one Big Brotherly blitzkrieg but in Little Brotherly moments, bit by bit.” Interestingly enough very little of the aforementioned seemed remotely possible to the general populace in 1984. That being the case when did all of this happen? Surprisingly, Quitner contends that it began back in the 1950s when the US government began entering records on large mainframe computers in an effort to disburse social security funds. Naturally the general populace abhorred the idea of being numbers as opposed to individuals, it is at this point that Quitner too brings up “reasonable expectations of privacy” and describes the legislation drawn up in the public and private sectors as having to redefine what was meant by it. Stephens maintains that as technology moves progressively forward it is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve a balance between societal and individual rights. What was once considered a ‘reasonable expectation’ no longer seems to be so. To support this claim he describes a case in 1988 where “…the court upheld a police search of a man’s garbage without a warrant, holding that ‘expectation of privacy’ was not to be judged by the individuals expectations, but instead by ‘society’s belief that the expectation was objectively reasonable.’”

< >Quitner moves on to discuss online privacy; how ‘cookies’ track the surfing habits of users, although the process is fairly harmless he contends that most people would prefer to keep their information private. This seems rather unreasonable when you consider the fact that most of us use a ‘savings’ card at the grocery store and think nothing of it. That card is doing the very same thing a ‘cookie’ does, tracking your buying habits, the habits of a certain demographic, to be used for the purpose of trying to sell you something relevant to your particular tastes.

< > Despite all of the frightening implications, both authors seem to agree that ultimately all of the new technologies are a benefit to society. Stephens asserts that the difficulty may not lie in the technology itself but rather in American’s historical lack of individual and governmental restraint i.e. just because the technology exists does not mean it must be used. Quitner’s take on the issue is a bit more along the lines of the old police saying ‘if you have nothing to hide you don’t need to worry’. He argues that he has nothing to hide but would still like some control over what people know about him and what they don’t, and in the end I think, with the exception of a very few, ‘some control’ is what we can all live with.

Quitner, Joshua. "Invasion of Privacy."Time 25 Aug
Excerpt from Gene Stephens, "High-Tech Crime Fighting; The Threat to Civil Liberties," The Futurist
(Bethesda, Maryland)July-Aug. 1990: 20-25

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