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IMPACTS OF TECHNOLOGY: Information Technology and Privacy


Department of Culture and Communication

Instructor: Helen Nissenbaum

The course examines social impacts of technology through the case of information technologies and their impacts on privacy. Few social values have been as dramatically affected as privacy by developments in the huge array of technologies of information, from photography to video, from databases to biometrics, from wire-taps to polygraphs. Social commentary attending these developments have been equally diverse, predicting the death of privacy, proclaiming its insignificance, and suggesting that technology itself has brought privacy into existence as an inchoate set of disparate values and interests. We will study some of these technologies and their impacts. We will note the people, institutions, and interests that are affected. And we will learn how to think about some of the challenges and evaluate them from the perspective of social, ethical, and political values. The subject of technology and privacy can be approached from many different vantage points. In the course, we adopt a philosophical perspective. This means that we seek to appreciate the effects of technology on privacy through an understanding of the meaning and value of privacy. The course is structured around several issues:

The technology. We will study a variety of technologies that have raised questions and protest, including photography, video-recording, biometrics, computer databases, computer and online monitoring, information processing techniques, and polygraphs. We also will examine some of the proposed technical solutions to privacy threats.

The contexts. We study some of the contexts in which these various technologies operate, especially those that have aroused public controversy, such as the workplace, marketplace, home, World Wide Web, doctorıs office, public squares, mind, body, and on the road.

The law. We study the extent and limits of privacy protection provided through law.

The value of privacy. We study the meaning and value of privacy through philosophical analysis and ethical, political and legal theory.

Privacy in conflict. Claims have been made about several important values that appear to conflict with privacy, including free speech, profit, efficiency, security, and accountability. How do we choose? Can we make sensible tradeoffs?

Technology and values. Should we blame technology for the loss of privacy? Or, is technology merely the tool that assists legitimate social forces?

The course divides into roughly two parts. In the first, we study a varied tradition of work in the humanities and social sciences that looks at the social, political and moral dimensions of technology generally - the rich and sometimes troubling relationship of humanity to technology. We will ask whether technology is a neutral force and what this question even means. We will ask whether and to what extent technology is determined by internal forces of science and engineering or broader social, moral and political forces. In the second part of the course, we turn attention to information and communications technology, carrying with us themes and principles learned in the first part. Our central focus, here, is both on the idea that values may be "embodied" in computer and information systems and what this means for those of us who are committed to a set of moral and political values.

The course, throughout, combines attention to theory as well as application. Students will be expected to gain competency in theory as well as familiarity with key cases. They will be given opportunity to demonstrate this competency in classroom discussion and written assignments. We will give particular attention to the cases of the Internet and World Wide Web.


  • Web Resources. Many readings have been made available through the Course homepage either via External Links or Course Documents. Those available online are marked CD.
  • Course Reader: All other readings (except if noted otherwise) can be found in the Course Reader. Available from: MacDougal Copy Center, 127 MacDougal Street (betw. W3 & W4). Call before going: 212-460-8591
  • Weston, A, A Rulebook for Arguments (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company)/span>

Course requirements and grading

Students are expected to attend all classes and complete assigned readings prior to class meetings. Performance in class will be assessed according to three criteria and grades assigned accordingly: participation, examinations, and essays. To pass the class, students MUST attain passing grades on each of these criteria, but grades will be assigned on the basis of the following:

30% Participation (Attendance and classroom and online participation)
40% Examinations (Midterm and Final)
30% Essays (Two short essays)

Class Schedule (subject to change)

January 22: Introduction to the course

January 24: Recent Technological Challenges
We review examples of technological innovations that have stirred cries of "privacy invasion".

Short paper due today
Short Paper (approx. 2-pages): Evaluate one of the cases discussed in the articles, such as thermal imaging, EZ Pass, cell phone identification numbers, Microsoft's GUID, the FBI's "magic lantern" software (read about it in: http://www.msnbc.com/news/660096.asp). Describe how the technology works, how it is or can be used, and whether you approve or disapprove of it. Give reasons that are as broadly persuasive as possible. (Imagine, for example, that you are writing for the Opinions section of The New York Times.) You can, but need not, do some further reading on the particular cases. (Best bet for quick results is EPIC website.)


  • Penenberg, Adam L. "The Surveillance Society." Wired. (December 2001). 157-161.
  • Greenhouse, Linda "Justices Say Warrant is Required In High-Tech Searches," The New York Times, June 12, A.1
  • Marx, Gary "Technology and Gender: Thomas I. Voire and the Case of the Peeping Tom," Sociological Quarterly, (forthcoming). CD
  • Barlow, John P. "Private Life in Cyberspace." Computers, Ethics, and Social Values. Eds. D. Johnson and H. Nissenbaum. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1995). 310-314.
  • Various readings from popular media about surveillance on the Roads

January 29: Anonymity

Being anonymous is, strictly speaking, to be unnamed. Anonymity is sometimes considered an important aspect of privacy but it can also be dangerous. Anonymity may be increasingly difficult to achieve in an information age.


Warren and Brandeis

Feb. 7: Biometrics

In an impersonal world, how can we know enough about the people around us, who we may need to depend on and trust? Biometric technologies not only identify, they also authenticate identity. Is this a good thing?


Clarke Website

Feb. 7, 12: Databases

When computers came to serve not only as calculators but as information processors, it was not long before their powers to store, organize, manipulate and analyze information about people were exploited. In many cases, the ends were good. But, soon, the worries of "big brother" were publicly aired, along with a sense that something needed to be done to control their proliferation and growth.


Records, Computers, and the Rights of Citizens

Feb. 14, 19: Technology and Society

How can we understand the social implications of technology, generally. What can we say about the complex relationships among people, technology, societies, and values. We read about some of the central views on this matter, beginning with the question: what is technology, anyhow?



Feb. 21: Medical and Genetic Privacy

Good healthcare depends on a vast body of knowledge, including the knowledge physicians and other caregivers have of individual patients. This information is stored and used. It is of great value to the patients themselves and to society at large - public health and research. But should there be restraints on what information is gathered and how it is used? Should genetic information be treated in unique ways?


See Healthprivacy.org

Feb. 26: Getting to Know You, Personally

With information, we can learn not only about bodies but about minds, about personalities. Is this sinister, or just a slightly enhanced version of "getting to know you"?



Feb. 28: Communications

We sometimes take for granted the privacy of our communications. We can whisper, pass notes, even send things in the mail, and expect them to remain secret. What can we expect, hope, or demand of our new communications technologies, from telephones to landlines to cell phones to email?



March 5: Catch-up and Review

March 7: Midterm

Mar. 12,14: Break

Mar.19, 21: Philosophical Analysis

What is privacy and why do we value it? These are the basic questions philosophers have asked. The questions are important because they provide reasons or justifications for heartfelt opinions on controversial issues. We will see, however, why theorists and activists alike have found privacy a challenging notion to grasp and defend. What interests and values does privacy challenge and how do we settle important tradeoffs?



March 26: Nostalgia: Is privacy really on the wane?

The online world offers protection from much of the scrutiny of physical interaction - others can't see or hear us. They may not know us. Yet online transaction has become increasingly a source of betrayal of our habits and origins. How so? And what should we do about it?


Online profiling (See EPIC)
Kang (mainly from Section II on)

April 2: In the workplace

Do our bosses have a right to monitor us? There is an increasing sense that we give up privacy when we cross the threshold of our places of work.



April 4, 9: The Law

U.S. law has grappled with both conceptual and normative privacy issues. Pulled in opposite directions by those, on the one hand, who see privacy as a distinctive value and on the other, by those who see it as a hodge-podge of more fundamental values, the law reveals complexity and confusion in its commitment to privacy. We examine various sources of legal protection for privacy, and will consider some of both the skeptical and committed positions.


Constitution of the United States of America

Apr. 11, 16: The Skeptics

Skeptical views on privacy are maintained on a variety of grounds: people don't care about privacy; privacy conflicts with other more important interests and liberties; and privacy is a negative social value. We will critically evaluate some of these arguments.



Apr. 18, 23: Technology as Protector of Privacy

Information technology - databases, biometrics, genetics, surveillance cameras - is usually understood as posing threats to privacy. But, here, we consider ways in which information technology can serve to protect privacy.


Reagle and Cranor
Schneier and Banisar

April 25: Guest speaker

April 30: Guest speaker

May 2: Catch-up and Review


Email Helen Nissenbaum
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