Privacy in the information age

The increased speed and ease of information capture and transmission is contributing to the number of privacy related news stories.

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It seems that almost every day there is a news story related to privacy - controlling personal information and access to it. Examples include Facebook's use of facial recognition software, breaches of injunctions on Twitter, and hackers accused of accessing census records. Concerns over privacy are nothing new. Ciphers were known to the ancient Greeks, and the medieval story of Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom links the private, the public, and the political.

New technologies

In our information age, the speed and ease of capture and transmission of information magnify and distort familiar privacy issues. Stalking is not new, but cyberstalking means the stalker can harass from anywhere in the world. 'Surveillance' can now include bulk analysis of amassed CCTV footage for people who have a 'suspicious' gait. Assuming a false identity in the past may have meant stealing a token such as a crown or a wax seal, now anyone can almost effortlessly misrepresent themselves to a global audience online in blogs. Market research once involved poring over sales figures and carrying out interviews, but now employs data mining algorithms to analyse vast datasets. Neuromarketing has seized new technologies such as EEG readers to detect responses inside the brains of consumers.

Perceptions of privacy

Privacy is intertwined with the notion of what it means to be a human in society, from physical presence, to public communication, and to the ideas in our heads. All forms of publishing and broadcast fulfil an urge to communicate with others. Human interaction is a negotiation of the course of such 'publishing' of our thoughts and feelings and what people perceive to be breaches of privacy varies between cultures and communities, as does where people expect the boundaries between the personal, private, and public realms to be drawn.  So, I might set a limit to my own privacy by having a thought that I decide not to admit to, and you may try to get me to change that limit by asking me what I am thinking. The moral implications are quite different if I am a naughty child and you are my parent, if I am a company director and you are a shareholder, or if I am a political prisoner and you are a government interrogator.

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