Data Collection and Individual Privacy
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Data Collection and Individual Privacy
In deliberation of the topic of the use of individual information, the moral issue of importance is whether public or private sector entities have the right to create individual profiles of consumers and their obligation in protecting the consumer's privacy is in question. The exponential growth of the information age in particular the personal computer has created a situation where economies of the public and private sector are at odds with the privacy of the consumer or citizen. Should data collection agencies use or sell information collected about individuals?
In my deliberation of this topic, I feel the consumer/citizen should possess the right of determining whom and in what form can data collection be allowed. I will look at the positions of proponents and advocates alike in making my ethical decision. The reasoning for this decision would be that, by allowing the individual the right to decide public and private sector entities would be acting in the best interest of society in a whole. This decision will be examined using the Utilitarian school of thought in ethics.
John Stuart Mills defined the theory of Utilitarianism as "the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him/her to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. (Rachels 107)." In summation, the theory can be said to mean actions are to be deemed good or bad judgements based on their consequence. This consequence must provide the society or all individual involved the greatest amount of benefit. In turn this benefit must be the majority's benefit over the minorities.
In viewing the issue of should data collection agencies use or sell information collected about individuals, the majorities I believe in this issue is the consumer/citizen and the minorities are public and private section entities. The influence of data collection or data profiling impacts the consumer citizen by far in comparison of the benefits of the public or private entity. The values to be considered are the values of health, discrimination, truth, and economics.
Proponents of data profiling or collection make the case that the data collected is either "non-identifiable" or the practice itself presents favorable economies by making information more accurate. Advertisers like Double Click Incorporated argue the point that data they collect of Internet user can not be tied to that individual. Meaning the data doesn't have the individuals name, address, phone number or social security number. What they collect is the individual's comings and goings across various web sites. If this were the only use of the individual information collected it would not be an issue. What's debatable and causes a problem for society is the alliance of Double Click with another data collection agency like Abacus Direct whose databases house personally identifiable information on consumers like their name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. This alliance makes proponents of data profiling alarmed.
Proponents are distressed because the consumer is being held hostage by information in the hands of a third party. Who will be the end user of this information? Could a possible employer get a hold of this profile? Can health care services be denied with respects to this profile? How truthful is the profile? Could the profile lead to discrimination due to its inaccuracy? These are some of the question being posed proponents of data collection entities. In testimony before the Federal Trade Commission the Center for Democracy and Technology stated:
The practices of advertising networks have far-reaching impacts on consumers' online privacy. The advertising networks that engage in profiling are hidden from the individual. They reach through the Web site with whom the individual has chosen to interact with and, unbeknownst to the individual, extract information about the individual's activities. In the rare instances where an individual is aware of the fact that a third party is collecting information about them, they are unlikely to be aware that this information is being fed into a growing personal profile maintained at a data warehouse. (CDT)
Double Click and other advertiser maintain the collaboration of this data "eliminates needless repetition and enhances the functionality and effectiveness of the advertisements you view (DoubleClick)."
Basically by tracking the consumers movements over the Internet or in private and understanding their preferences the public and private sector entity is making the case they can judge what is best for the individual. I'd like to point out in some instances this scenario is of value. If a known sex offender lives in your neighborhood and you have children, the public knowledge of this individual is a benefit to society. Another example, if you purchase a Christian book about how to raise children at a web site and a few months revisit that web site and they provide you with recommendations similar to your last purchase. This again is a benefit. If you judge these two arguments solely on the merit of good and bad due to consequence then you'd have to say they are good. As stated in the beginning of this paper, the act must benefit the majority not the minority.
The majority of all citizens must benefit in order for the judgement to be deemed moral. Would the sex offender, the offender's family, or someone unjustly sentenced as an offender benefit? What are the implications of publishing information about a sex offender in error? Does that scenario benefit the majority? If the argument of customizing the online preferences of a consumer is valid, what happens when this information gets into the wrong hands? For instance, the purchase is of a pornographic nature and your place of employment found out. How will that scenario benefit society in a whole? Thus data collection must be turned over into the hands of the person or people who can truthfully hold and handle this information, the consumer/citizen.
Providing the consumer the technologies needed to maintain or update their personal data is the solution. The power will be in the hands of the person(s) that information will impact the most. It will further enhance the marketing strategies of the public and private section because the information they receive will be of greater accuracy and model the preferences of that individual. Thus the consequence of this action will mean all parties can benefit because the consumer/citizen will receive information from entities they choice to receive information from and the entities can market to the right target population thus increasing economies of scale. So to answer the ethical question of should data collection agencies use or sell information collected about an individual, the answer to the question is yes with the consent of the individual.
1. Rachels, James. "The Element of Moral Philosophy". McGraw-Hill College. Third Edition. 1999.
2. "Non-personally-identifiable Information collected by DoubleClick." Double Click Incorporated. January 2000. http://www.doubleclick.net/company_info/about_doubleclick/privacy/non_identify.htm.
3. Mulligan, Deirdre. "Public Workshop on Online Profiling." Center for Democracy and Technology. 9 November 1999. http://www.cdt.org/privacy/testimony/991108profiling.shtml