Imagine entering a grocery store and being tailed by masked paparazzi taking pictures, scribbling notes, and timing the length of each pause while you make product comparisons. These “consumer agents” are assigned to evaluate your decisions in gas stations, shopping malls, evenings out, your associates, and where you rest your head at night. Using their observations, they shout suggestions about what they know you want, should buy, and must have.
This is not a concocted Orwellian nightmare; the equivalent of these consumer agents are “already routine on the internet” (Boatright 163). Our behaviors are followed closely and scrutinized in every personal aspect and nuanced detail of our consumer interactions. The veritable mountain of diverse and intimate information gleaned there is plugged it into a database and then added to yet another mountain of our personal information from our many other excursions into the public domain. This mega-profile, listing everything from what car we own to what toilet paper we use, and perhaps even our movements in real time, is then fed to countless advertising agencies, big corporations, and institutions both public and private. Some of these entities use this sensitive information to lure us into buying items we don’t want or need., while others use this information for more nefarious purposes (citing reasons such as “national security” or “research”). Indeed, it’s not conspiracy theory to surmise that a great deal of oblivious American’s personal information has, at this point, already been aggregated into significant profiles- many of which will eventually go to an exploitative, unethical, and dubious end-user.
This invasion of virtual privacy is unsettling because “human rights protections are plentiful in the offline realm, mainly due to centuries of effort by the citizenry to voice concerns and demands for the right to control personal information” (Hinduja 46). We assume that our rights of privacy and anonymity transfer de facto into electronic medium. The truth is that “it is just this naïve and misguided assurance that has made it easier for corporations to impinge on the rights of the unsuspecting” (Hinduja 47).
Sun Microsystems chief executive officer Scott McNealy disagrees with the right to internet privacy, as evidenced by his statement, “You already have zero privacy, get over it” (qtd.in Caudill, Murphy 14). This is the sentiment of an elite businessman with everything to gain; the public, however, does not agree. Georgia Tech University’s World Wide Web Surveying team, which has been studying how Americans use the internet since 1994, recently polled 1,482 people regarding internet usage and perspectives on privacy and found that “71% believe that Internet privacy laws should be developed and implemented” (Hinduja 39). Additionally, the “highest portion of respondents perceived privacy as the primary issue requiring resolution,” although many reflected a general lack of knowledge about possible threats “incurred through the simple process of web browsing” (Hinduja 39). These data indicate that while consumers are aware of and highly concerned about the problem of privacy on the internet, they are ignorant of technical and ethical violations being committed. The advent of the internet, called by some the most important communication development since Guttenburg invented movable type, has led to a vast new consumer marketplace that is essentially unregulated and thus open to a range of novel and sweeping ethical issues that have engendered much debate (Masci). Arguably the most important of these debates is whether consumers have a right to privacy, while establishing suitable parameters for competing interests and perspectives.
The Internet privacy debate is massive, complex, and comprehensive in nature. However, the crux of this debate focuses primarily on “the gathering and use of information in database marketing” (Boatright 150)....
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