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Expert Comment: The PRISM scandal and online privacy

Mr David Lundie Tuesday 18 June 2013

In the light of the recent PRISM scandal, Dr David Lundie, Lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope, looks at the value of online privacy.

Recent revelations about the US intelligence services taking data from Google, Facebook and other major internet service providers have again shone a spotlight on the value of online privacy. My research with colleagues at Cornell University suggests that many people think carefully about who they are revealing their information to, in order to balance harms against benefits.

When disclosing information to private internet companies like Facebook, users are choosing to part with that information as the cost of accessing services, such as improved access to their social contacts. The consent we give may not be perfect, and certainly doesn’t seem to be based on a stable, rational value[1], but it is at least consent. When that information is sold or appropriated to other third parties, however, people lose the freedom to set a value for their own identity.

Numerous authors on the ethics of online privacy, from a range of fields including engineering, health and the social sciences, have pointed to unequal power relations between the providers and the recipients of private information as a moral problem[2], arguing that the disclosure of information without consent poses a threat to our autonomy.

As legal scholar Daniel Solove points out, our private information given in one context, such as the supermarket purchasing history we might give in exchange for loyalty card discounts, once combined with other data, such as our e-mail history, mobile phone location tracking data, bank account details, can create an almost totalising picture of an individual’s life[3], which we would not have consented to had we known the final destination of our data. This holds true even without the government ‘reading’ the content of our e-mails.

The extent of British government co-operation with the NSA PRISM programme remains unclear. All of us, however, increasingly invest a value in our online personal identity, and we dismiss threats to our control over that value at our peril.



[1] Schrader, D & Lundie, D: The value of privacy and private information-sharing in online communications, Association of Moral Education Annual Conference, San Antonio, TX Nov. 2012

[2] Schrader, D & Lundie, D (forthcoming) The ethics of privacy in new communications technologies: a systematic literature review, under review for New Media & Society

[3] Solove, D (2013) Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff between Privacy and Security [Yale University Press]


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