Privacy, Encryption and the Internet

Seumas Miller


The coming into being of new communication and computer technologies has generated a host of ethical problems, and some of the more pressing concern the moral notion of privacy. Some of these problems arise from new possibilities of data collections, and software for computer monitoring. For example, computers can now combine and integrate data bases provided by polling and other means to enable highly personalised detailed voter profiles. Another cluster of problems revolves around the threat to privacy posed by the new possibilities of monitoring and surveillance. For example, telephone tapping, interception of electronic mail messages, minute cameras and virtually undetectable listening and recording devices give unprecedented access to private conversations and other private communications and interactions. Possibly the greatest threat to privacy is posed by the possibility of combining these new technologies, and specifically combining the use of monitoring and surveillance devices with certain computer software and computer networks, including the Internet.

Provision of an adequate philosophical account of the notion of privacy is a necessary precursor to setting the proper limits of intrusion by the various new technologies. Such an account of privacy would assist in defining the limits to be placed on unacceptably intrusive applications of new technologies. Moreover it would do so in such a way as to be sensitive to the forms of public space created by these technologies, and not unreasonably impede those new possibilities of communication and information acquisition which are in fact desirable. As always it is important to balance the rights of individuals against the needs of the community. On the one hand there is a fundamental moral obligation to respect the individual’s right to privacy, on the other hand there are the legitimate requirements of, for example, employers to monitor the performances of their employees, and law enforcement agencies to monitor the communications and financial transactions of organised crime. Moreover the working out of these ethical problems is relativised to a particular institutional and technological context. The question as to whether email, for example, ought to be assimilated to ordinary mail depends in part on the nature of the technology in question and the institutional framework in which it is deployed. Perhaps email messages sent on a company owned computer network ought to be regarded as public communications within the organisation however personal their content, since unlike ordinary mail, email messages are always stored somewhere in the backup system owned by the company and are therefore accessible to the dedicated company cybersleuth.