The year is 2010, the era is the 21st century; and we, citizens of the world, are living in the Information Age. Our information is made available on the Internet where it can be viewed by millions. The days where our data was recorded on scraps of paper and left in a box in an office along with thousands of other registers are long gone. Our personal data is permanently recorded in the hard drives of computers where they can be analysed and exploited by anyone with access to that computer; or worse, identity thieves and hackers may get their hands on the data.
With the development of digital technology, our data is not only being monitored, but it is being gathered and stored in such a way that makes it searchable. Daniel J. Solove had it right when he wrote, “Until recently, public records were difficult to access—finding information about a person often involved a scavenger hunt through local offices to dig up records. But with the Internet, public records are increasingly being posted online, where anybody anywhere can easily obtain and search them.” Is there a form of protection against this invasion of privacy? Are we to trust these data controllers, the person or persons who control the functions and methods of the processing of our personal data? Are the government regulations decreasing our right to privacy? What is considered private these days?
The Birth of the Internet
The Internet, or the Net, is a global system of interrelated computer networks. This valuable communication medium was created as a product of the Cold War, and it saw its beginning in 1969 as ARPANet, where it was only used to connect main supercomputer sites and academic and research organisations in the U.S. In the 1980s the Internet was still being used for research and academic purposes at universities, research laboratories and libraries; transmitting just text – no graphics, sound or video. As Lawrence Lessig puts it “At the start of the Internet, communication was through text. Media such as USENET newsgroups, Internet Relay Chat, and e-mail all confined exchange to text—to words on a screen, typed by a person (or so one thought).”
The development of the World Wide Web (the multimedia-based technology that allows one to access multimedia and text on the Net) and web browsers (which allow users to find web pages) by CERN researchers Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau in the early 1990s allowed for the Internet to be opened to commercial uses by persons other than researchers and academics. It was during this time that the global network became a phenomenon. In the words of Graham T.T Molitor – “This miraculous information channel – the internet – will touch and alter virtually every facet of humanity, business, and all the rest of civilization’s trappings.”
Back in those days, there was a sense of freedom and anonymity on the Internet, the user could visit any website he or she wanted without feeling that he is giving away a part of his identity, or having someone spy on him. This sense of privacy and liberty is now gone, since one can be tracked down via his IP address, a virtual address which doesn’t refer to a specific geographic place; and also via the cookies that are deposited on one’s computer every time a website is visited. Nowadays, different websites, especially commercial ones, want to collect as much personal data about a user as they possibly can, even without the user’s consent or knowing. This data is gathered, sorted, and used by them “to investigate backgrounds, check credit, market products, and make a wide variety of...