E-Government, Participation or Panopticon?

Sara Wilford


The prospect of a ‘wired’ world in terms of the delivery of government services is one that creates much debate. This paper examines the privacy implications for such a wide-ranging set of technologies. The work examines how privacy must be considered both prior to and during the implementation of any services that governments wish to provide and discusses how the growth of e-government has been very rapid and yet the success and extent of the services being provided has shown considerable variation of access and provision.

The paper begins by providing an examination of the nature and importance of privacy, providing a philosophical and sociological perspective on the need for privacy within modern western society. There is also a discussion of the issues of compliance and participation and how citizens balance their requirements for privacy with a desire to engage in the benefits offered by a consumer led society. This is followed by an analysis of what privacy means to individuals as a fundamental human right and considers the difficulty of defining privacy due to its subjective nature. The next section considers and analyses the issues of liberty and freedom and how privacy should be considered a key issue that may impact on the quality and quantity of liberty and freedom enjoyed by citizens in western democratic society. Further there is a consideration of the potential for increased surveillance creating a panoptic society of universal scrutiny of citizens. This may be justified as for the purposes of national security which although technologically possible and somewhat justifiable, may negatively impact on individual privacy, liberty and freedom. This means that there is a need to make the distinction between the ability to place society under surveillance and whether it is acceptable to do so.

The paper further focuses on the provision of e-government and examines how the provision of service may vary considerably between departments, governmental bodies and geographical regions. This encompasses discussion of the problems inherent in e-government systems such as access, provision, security and quality of information provided. Further, it is discussed how personal identification and verification needs to be in place to ensure the security of systems and appropriateness of access, but that the implications of such universal identification may adversely affect the civil liberties of citizens. This requires that there is a balance, which ensures that only that information needed for identification is gathered and it is not seen as an opportunity for the collection of other potentially useful data. Alternative uses of personal information gathered in this way may allow government organizations greater scope to utilize personal information for crime prevention or detection purposes thus impacting upon privacy and the privacy expectations of citizens. Recent proposals for Universal identification cards within the UK and USA are discussed in light of this issue. The paper further discusses public policy issues arising from the above debate, which considers the problems of ensuring transparency and accountability whilst also enabling privacy and security. This further discusses the need for built in protections that consider the needs of citizens rather than reactive, bolt on safeguards initialized after problems have occurred.

The paper considers current perceptions of privacy, awareness and importance by using case study examples. This highlights perceptions of privacy and the importance of informed consent to the use of personal information and public surveillance and which impacts on the provision of e-government services. An analysis of case studies in public and private sector organisations has indicated the importance of privacy to individuals and the differences in approach of the two sectors. Consideration of the findings of the case study research has enabled informed analysis of the potential impact of e-government on individuals particularly where citizens are able to conduct their affairs electronically. This analysis reveals whether online and other electronic resources being made available will bring about greater efficiency in the provision of public services and protection of citizens (presuming that such provision is used effectively by consumers) or will become a method of surveillance of the population leading to an erosion of privacy and liberty.

In conclusion, this paper reveals several key findings of the research undertaken and highlights how those findings can help to inform policy makers of the areas of importance to individuals. When undertaking e-government policies, awareness of the perceptions of those impacted by such decisions is shown to be a valuable tool in ensuring that policies reflect citizen needs and concerns as well as government desire for modernization of services. The need to consider the impact of e-government policies particularly where citizen participation is encouraged and expected, requires that not only the mechanics of such a system should be carefully designed, but that the bigger picture of civil liberties, and the importance of privacy to individuals, is seen as an integral part of e-government implementation.