A Valuable Discussion About the Ethical Issues of Internet Privacy

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Ethical Issues of Internet Privacy

Internet privacy is a major concern today. It has raised certain ethical issues. Advertisers track your web activities and intrude on your privacy. Your online transactions, emails, and social networking profiles are scanned, thus invading your online privacy. There could be valid reasons for this. But is this ethical? The Internet privacy needs of users should be catered to. And we cannot forget ethics. This Techspirited article talks about the ethical issues of Internet privacy.

Social Media

Think of This

If all the information accessed or shared over the Internet by a user is gathered from multiple sources (like his social networking profile, browsing habits, money transactions, etc.) and compiled, it can give you an almost complete picture of the kind of person he is.

Privacy is the state of being secluded from the view of others. This allows a selective disclosure of one’s identity and information. For some, it means anonymity, and for others, it implies security of personally identifiable information. The definitions of privacy differ across individuals and cultures. The Internet serves as the means for communication and a platform for financial transactions, and a lot of critical data is exchanged over it. With its increasing use for various purposes, a new concept has evolved – Internet privacy. It includes addressing the security needs of users’ information and preventing disclosure of the personally identifiable details of web users without their consent. Technology makes it possible to view all the information that is being exchanged over the web. It is of help against threats to web security and in protecting users from security breaches. But the same can be used to disclose confidential information for the wrong reasons, thus invading user privacy on the Internet. This gives rise to ethical issues surrounding the protection of critical information from unauthorized access. Internet privacy is the control you have over what information about yourself or your online activities, you wish to disclose.

Internet Privacy and Ethics

Invasion of Internet privacy can be avoided with the strict implementation of privacy laws. But every act cannot be classified as legal or illegal. For example, an advertiser monitoring the online habits of web users to target potential customers is not illegal. But ethics dictate the extent to which network activity should be monitored. Network administrators in companies need to monitor traffic to their server, which includes tracking the Internet use by employees. It’s ethics that draw the line between ensuring network security and breaching user privacy.


Email communication

✦ When sharing personal or confidential information through email, transactions occur through the email server, which means your information does not remain confidential in the exact sense of the term. However, for technical and ethical reasons, email service providers do not use your information in a way that can harm you.

✦ There are ethical issues over whether third parties should be allowed to store or read emails without the users’ consent.

✦ Google scans your emails with the help of automated systems. They use this to detect spam and malware, and also for tailored advertising. Your email content, along with searches, map requests, YouTube views, and your Google profile as a whole is analyzed and this information is used to generate advertisements that are most relevant to you. This scanning and indexing cannot be fully turned off, making it an ethical issue in information privacy on the Internet.

Online Transactions

Online shopping

✦ When shopping online, you share your credit card number or bank account details on the shopping portal. There is a potential of these details being used unethically or for fraudulent purposes.

✦ Online retailers collect data about your online behavior and use it in user profiling. Their intention is to make shopping recommendations and offers that suit your taste and budget. But is it ethical to track you without your consent?

✦ While carrying out banking transactions online, you share details about your finances with the bank. Malicious users may obtain this information by unethical means and use it to their advantage. For the same reason, some are skeptical about banking or shopping online.

✦ Your credit card or account information reveals your lifestyle choices, and your travel and other expenses. Is the use of this information by financial institutions and insurance companies ethical?

✦ When you share personal details or financial records with organizations online, you expect your details to be protected by them. Even after the organization knows of a data security breach, there is no legal binding on them to let the users know of the same. It would be ethical on their part to notify the users of the breach as soon as they know of it.

✦ The other important ethical issue in Internet privacy is whether the websites that gather personally identifiable information from the users should store or share it.

Government and Other Agencies

Cyber security

✦ The government holds a lot of important data about people. If the security of this data is compromised, it can threaten national security. Federal websites need to maintain high standards of privacy considering that they store such large amounts of critical information.

✦ The degree of access the government has to citizens’ personal records raises ethical issues in information privacy. Using the records responsibly and maintaining their confidentiality is a prime duty of the government agencies.

✦ There are many other organizations that store personal details and other critical information of their users. They include banks that have financial records of account holders, medical facilities that have medical records and other details of individuals, educational institutes that maintain personal and educational details of students, and companies that maintain employee records.

✦ With the online storage of these details comes the risk of security breach. Not letting this information fall in the wrong hands requires strict security measures and a strong ethic.

✦ It is the duty of these agencies to take measures against the manipulation or unethical use of these records. Those involved in managing this information should be moral enough to not make any illegitimate or wrong use of it.

Social Networking Websites and Privacy

Social networking

✦ Through status updates on social networking websites, you let everyone know of your location, and possibly some details about your personal life. Through utilities like Maps or Facebook’s Places service, you let the public know of your current location, whereby one can track you and know your whereabouts.

✦ You upload photos, your personal information, professional details, etc., onto your social networking profile. Technically, the social network owns the data you upload. This raises the ethical issue of whether these websites should store or use your information, and for what purposes. Even after an account is deleted, its details remain with the website. Do they permanently delete the records of deleted user accounts? Is the storing of records ethical?

✦ Through social networks, your personal information is made available to third-party tracking websites and advertisers. Should they do this without your consent? If not, how clearly should they mention the same in their Terms or Privacy Policy?

✦ There are age restrictions over having an account on social networks. Is the age limit adhered to? What role should parents play in ensuring that the age rule is not violated? How much responsibility do the websites share in ensuring stricter measures about age? This could be their way of attracting all age groups, thus earning a wider user base. Is this ethical?

✦ Judicial Codes of Conduct in different states put restrictions on social media interactions between attorneys and their clients, judges and lawyers, and between lawyers (or agents) from opposing parties. For example, a link between a lawyer and a judge on sites like Facebook or LinkedIn could indicate an influence of the lawyer on the judge. If lawyers representing opposing parties are friends on a social networking website, the relation could influence their professional ethics.

✦ Social networking platforms, as also blogs and forums give the users a complete freedom of expression. It’s your moral responsibility as a user, to not make false statements or promote anything wrong.

✦ Mailing lists and forum posts are a part of search results. Is it ethically correct to expose people’s views to the world?

✦ Some platforms allow anonymity. Is it right to voice opinions without disclosing your identity? When using the Internet, you can disguise yourself as someone different. There isn’t a law prohibiting you from carrying a different personality on the web. But is it ethical? Isn’t it like cheating those you interact with by posing as someone you are not?

✦ Some users prefer anonymity when using the Internet. Is it ethically right to allow this? While it caters to the privacy needs of some users, it may endanger Internet use for others. Those involved in cyberstalking and hacking often use the Internet anonymously.

✦ In forums, chat rooms, communities, and blogs, you can voice your opinions on any and everything. You are entitled to your opinions, but while voicing them, are you as responsible as you would be, if you were talking face-to-face. On a social networking platform, you could be interacting with people from different backgrounds and age groups. You could be influencing them to follow something wrong (maybe unintentionally). Is that morally right?

✦ Scientific discoveries and ongoing studies are discussed on online forums. This raises issues in research ethics pertaining to the privacy of research subjects and informed consent of those involved.

✦ Spreading the wrong information or saying something under a false name is like taking undue advantage of privacy protection on the Internet. It’s only unethical.

Internet Cookies

✦ Simply put, cookies are pieces of text sent by a server (website) to a browser and stored on your computer for future use. They are of use by the website or advertisers to track your preferences and serve you with information tailored to your needs. But cookies raise a privacy concern as they can be used by hackers too.

✦ Blocking or deleting cookies frequently, is how users can protect themselves from this potential threat. This is mostly true with HTTP cookies, but not so easy with Flash cookies and Evercookies.

✦ Flash cookies are not easily blocked. But Privacy Browsing setting can help you avoid them. Evercookies make multiple copies of themselves on your computer and are stored in different types of storage mechanisms. They store your unique identifiers, and advertisers use them to track your behavior and know your preferences. This helps them target potential customers. Evercookies can track you even after they are deleted. This raises the question of whether it is ethical to have no means for the users to block the advertisers from tracking them.

✦ Third-party cookies are used to track users across multiple websites. Advertisers use them to track your visits to different domains, thus tracking your web preferences in general. Ethical issues arise when websites do not notify you of third-party cookies being used. It can damage your trust in the website. It is recommended that websites using third-party cookies disclose the same to the users through their privacy policy.

Internet cookies

✦ In 2002, the European Union, in the Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications said that placement of cookies would require user consent. According to this directive, storage of cookies was allowed only if the user knew how his data would be used and if he was allowed to opt out of this. The directive was revised in 2009 which requires websites to obtain user consent before employing cookie storage.

Internet Service Providers

✦ Your internet service provider can track the IP addresses you visit. This enables the ISPs to know the websites you browse. Also, they can identify whether you are sending an email or visiting a web page, which is to say, they can track the type of Internet activity. They log the information such as IP addresses and port numbers for a limited period.

✦ ISPs do the tracking with the purpose of monitoring illegal downloads or sharing of copyrighted material, so that the concerned media companies can be informed of the guilty.

✦ Furthermore, your browsing habits and website preferences are of great use to the advertisers for attracting you by serving you advertisements that suit your choices.

✦ Many Internet service providers maintain copies of email messages on their servers. They are stored on the mail servers before delivery and the backups can remain with them even after the emails are deleted from the inbox.

✦ This tracking can potentially breach your privacy on the Internet. For example, your ISP is in a position to track even the content of your emails. But what they do track and log includes the sender, receiver, amount of content (size of email or email attachments), and not the content itself. That’s basically because there is no motive behind or benefit derived from it. Also, the process is not easy. Moreover, it’s unethical.

✦ To disclose information about your Internet activity to the government or any other party, the ISP needs to have a court order saying so.

✦ A report, “Keeping Internet Users in the Know or in the Dark,” by Canadian online privacy groups, IXmaps and The New Transparency project, rates Internet service providers on privacy and expresses the need for more transparency between ISPs and users regarding where and how their private data is stored and used, and under what conditions it is disclosed to third parties.

✦ Access to or disclosure of non-personally identifiable information of the users is acceptable. But using personal information without the knowledge and consent of the users is not right.

How Users are Responsible

✦ One common scenario where Internet privacy is at stake, rather is put to risk by the users themselves, is when they disclose personal details on websites without much thought. Be it posting your life’s events on social networking websites or sharing personal details via emails; be it while banking online or accepting lucrative offers on the Internet; it’s you, who agrees to share personal information, thus inviting an invasion of privacy.

✦ The laws pertaining to information privacy on the web differ across countries and keep being changed or updated. As users, it is your responsibility to keep yourself abreast of these laws so as to protect yourself from privacy breaches.

✦ How often do you actually read the terms and conditions of websites before clicking on ‘Yes’? How often do you read the privacy policies before accepting them? Surveys reveal that most users never read the policies or terms before accepting them, thus landing themselves into trouble.

✦ Many users are not aware that privacy settings on websites can be modified (especially social networking), thus allowing them to share their details with only a select few.

✦ The effort to ensure Internet privacy should start at the user’s end. Choice of the right operating system (one with optimum security features), wise decisions on what information should or should not be disclosed when online, and learning to identify trustworthy sources from the unreliable ones, are keys to protect your privacy during Internet use.

Many are of the view that when on the web, you are connected to the world, and nothing of what you share on this platform can remain private. They think that there is no such concept as Internet privacy in the true sense. However, there are others who advocate the need of privacy on the Internet, and even prefer anonymity while using it. Complete anonymity is not the intent of Internet privacy. It rather intends to achieve controlled disclosure of critical information. Allowing the effective sharing of data while safeguarding personally identifiable or other confidential information is the real challenge. Visibility on the Internet is both good and bad. It allows easy transactions and exchange of information, but blurs the very idea of privacy. Also, the protection of privacy is of no use if Internet ethics are put to stake.


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