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IMPACTS OF TECHNOLOGY: Information Technology and Privacy

Professor: Helen Nissenbaum

Department of Culture and Communication

Fall '02 (E38.1034001SP02)

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, doctor¹s 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?


  • 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)


Students are expected to attend all classes and complete assigned readings prior to class meetings. Grades for the course will be assessed according to three criteria: in-class participation, examinations, and short essays as follows.

30%     Participation (Attendance, classroom, and online participation)

40%     Examinations (Midterm and Final)

30%     Essays (Two short essays)

To pass the class, students muse attain passing grades in all three.


The homepage will serve as the hub of the class. The following important elements will be found there: syllabus, which will be updated as we go along; discussion group where students can post questions, ideas, and observations; useful external links; essay questions; readings. Students should check frequently.


September 4:  Introduction to the course

September 9:  Overview of Impacts of Technology on Privacy

For at least a century, technological innovations that have stirred cries of “privacy invasion”. We review some of the significant cases, focusing on some current examples.


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

September 11:            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. 


Froomkin, A. Michael.  “Legal Issues in Anonymity and Pseudonymity.” The Information Society.  (Volume 15, Number 2: April-June 1999). 113-127.

Herz, J. C.  “Cross-dressing in Cyberspace.” Surfing on the Internet.  (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1995).

September 16:            No Class

September 18:            Video Surveillance

Special Event: Tour Washington Square and environs with Bill Brown

Video surveillance is seen as the answer to much insecurity, especially in the wake of terror and crime. The United Kingdom has embraced this technology with great enthusiasm and, it appears, little public objection. We also read the most famous modern paper written about the right to privacy, which all began with video’s precursor – photography.


Bentham, J.. The Panopticon Writings. Edited by Miran Bozovic (London: Verso, 1995) 31-34

Rosen, Jeffrey. “A Watchful State.” The New York Times Magazine, October 7, 2001. 38-43, 85,92,93.

Short paper due today

Short Paper (approx. 2-pages):  Select one example from Sept. 9  readings of a technological device or system whose use has raised privacy concerns, for example, thermal imaging, EZ Pass, cell phone identification numbers, etc. Describe how the technology works, how it is or can be used, and whether you think it is problematic. Give reasons. You may wish to do some further reading, but need not. Try the EPIC.org website and search on topic of interest.

September 23,25:       Biometrics, Identification, and Authentication

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, Roger A. “Human Identification in Information Systems: Management Challenges and Public Policy Issues”, Information Technology & People 7, 4 (December 1994) 6-37 http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/DV/HumanID.html

Agre, Philip “Your face is Not a Bar Code: Arguments Against Automatic Face Recognition in Public Places” http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/people/pagre/bar-code.html

Ashborn, Julian (1999) “The Biometric White Paper.” http://homepage.ntlworld.com/avanti/whitepaper.htm

September 30, October 2:      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.


Summary and Recommendations from Records, Computers, and the Rights of Citizens.  Report of the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Automated Personal Data Systems.  U. S. Department of Health, Education & Welfare.  (Copyright by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1973).

Clarke, Roger A.  “Information Technology and Dataveillance.”  Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices.  Ed. Charles Dunlop and Rob Kling.  (New York: Academic Press, 1991).  496-522.

Froomkin, A. Michael, “The Death of Privacy?” Stanford Law Review, Vol 52, 1461-1543 http://personal.law.miami.edu/~froomkin/articles/privacy-deathof.pdf   (Read only 1461-1476)

Gandy, O. “Exploring Identity and Identification” in Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, and Public Policy, vol 14, no. 2. 2000 http://www.asc.upenn.edu/usr/ogandy/Identity.pdf

Tavani, Herman T. “Informational Privacy, Data Mining and the Internet.” Ethics and Information Technology. (Volume 1, Number 2: 1999). 137-145.

Westin, Alan and Michael Baker, (1972) Databanks in a Free Society: Computers, Record-Keeping and Privacy. (New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co.) 3-5,15-20

CSTB: “Privacy Related Legislation” Unpublished report.

Privacy Basics: OECD Guidelines

European Commission Press Release, July 25, 1995. “Council Definitively Adopts Directive on Protection of Personal Data.”

October 7:      Medical and Genetic Privacy

Good healthcare depends on a vast body of knowledge, including the knowledge physicians and other caregivers have about 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 many people feel that information about their health is sensitive and personal and should not be widely shared. Are they right? Should there be restraints on what information is gathered and how it is used? Should genetic information be treated in unique ways?

Goldman, Janlori. “Protecting Privacy to Improve Health Care.” Health care. (November/December 1998.) 47-60.

Read the latest about Federal Rules applying to medical records on Health Privacy Project Website: http://www.healthprivacy.org/

Murray, Thomas H.  “Genetic Exceptionalism and ‘Future Diaries’: Is Genetic Information Different from Other Medical Information?” Genetic Secrets: Protecting Privacy and Confidentiality in the Genetic Era.  Ed. Mark A. Rothstein.  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).  60-73.

October 9:       Getting to Know You, Personally

Information technology can track not only the status of health, but state of mind, personality and habit. Is this sinister or simply a more effective way of “getting to know you”?


Regan, Priscilla. “Psychological Privacy: Evaluating our Thoughts.” Legislating Privacy. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995). Chapter 6 (skim)

Westin, Alan F. Privacy and Freedom. (New York: Atheneum, 1967). 3-7, 67-168.

DeCew, Judith. In Pursuit of Privacy. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997). 125-144.

October 14:    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?


Regan, Priscilla. “Communication Privacy: Transmitting Our Message.” Legislating Privacy. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995). Chapter 3

Carnivore and Magic Lantern: Read about them in EPIC.org

October 16:    The Internet

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?


Committee on the Internet in the Evolving Information Infrastructure, (2001) The Internet’s Coming of Age, Report of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board. Chapter 1, 1-5

Bennett, Colin J. “Cookies, Web Bugs, Webcams, and Cue Cats: Patterns of Surveillance on the World Wide Web.” Ethics and Information Technology. (Volume 3, Number 3: 2001) 197-210.

Online profiling (See EPIC)

Smith, Marica, “Internet Privacy: An Analysis of Technology and Policy Issues” Report of the Congressional Research Service, December 2000

October 21:    Catch-up and Review

October 23:    Midterm

October 28,30:           The Law

Guest Lecturer (10/28) Gaia Bernstein

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 skeptical as well as committed positions.


Bill of Rights at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/const/const.html

Warren, Samuel D. and Louis D. Brandeis.  “The Right to Privacy [The Implicit Made Explicit].” Philosophical Dimensions of Privacy: An Anthology.  Ed. Ferdinand Schoeman.  (New York: Cambridge U P, 1984).  75-103.

Prosser, William L. “Privacy” California Law Review,  vol 48, no.3 August 1960, 383-424 -- CD

Solove, Daniel J. and Marc Rotenberg “Information Privacy Law Cases and Materials” Aspen Publishing co, 2002, pp. 19-20

November 4,6:            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?


Weinberg, Alvin. “Can Technology Replace Social Engineering?” Controlling Technology: Contemporary Issues. Ed. William Thompson (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1991). 41-48.

Florman, Samuel C. “In Praise of Technology.” Controlling Technology: Contemporary Issues. Ed. William Thompson. (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1991). 148-156.

Winner, Langdon. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” The Whale and the Reactor. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). 19-39.

Mumford, Lewis. “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics.” Controlling Technology: Contemporary Issues. Ed. William Thompson. (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1991). 371-378.

November 11,13:        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?


Reiman, Jeffrey. “Driving to the Panopticon: A Philosophical Exploration of the Risks to Privacy Posed by the Highway Technology of the Future.” Santa Clara Computer and High Technology Law Journal. (Volume 11, Number 1: March 1995). 27-44.

Gavison, Ruth.  “Privacy and the Limits of Law.”  The Yale Law Journal (Vol. 89, No. 3: January 1980)  421-471.

Nissenbaum, Helen.  “Protecting Privacy in an Information Age: The Problem of Privacy in Public.”  Law and Philosophy  (Volume 17: 1998). 559-596. CD

November 18: Surveillance at the movies

Guest Lecturer: Andrew Light

November 20: Nostalgia: Is privacy really on the wane?

In some ways we have more privacy than ever before. Some would argue this is even a curse of our liberal times. But in other ways we have less. Smith provides a glimpse into this question with some historical anecdote and astute observations about the contemporary condition.


Smith, Janna Malamud. Private Matters. (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1997). 53-72, 235-243.

November 25: Skeptical Considerations

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.


Allen, Anita, “Coercing Privacy” in 40 William and Mary Law Review 723

Singleton, Solveig.  “Privacy as Censorship: A Skeptical View of Proposals to Regulate Privacy in the Private Sector.”  Cato Policy Analysis No. 295.  (January 22, 1998).

Posner, Richard. “An Economic Theory of Privacy” Reprinted in Philosophical Dimensions of Privacy: An Anthology.  Ed. Ferdinand Schoeman.  (New York: Cambridge U P, 1984)

Hahn, Robert “An Assessment of the Costs of Proposed Online Privacy Legislation” Research Report of the American Enterprise Institute, May 7, 2001 CD (skim)

Volokh, Eugene “Personalization and Privacy” from Communications of the ACM, August 2000, vol 43, issue 8, At 84.  http://www1.law.ucla.edu/~volokh/acm.htm

November 27: Class Cancelled

December 2:   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.


Levy, Stephen.  “Crypto Rebels.” High Noon on the Electronic Frontier.  Ed. Peter Ludlow.  (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).  185-205.

Schneier, Bruce.  “Cryptography Primer.”  The Electronic Privacy Papers.  Ed. Scheier and Banisar.  (New York: Wiley, 1997).  258-284.

Reagle, Joseph and Cranor, Lorrie. “The Platform for Privacy Preferences,.” Communications of the ACM. (Volume 42, Number 2: February 1999). 48-55.

Brin, David. “Chapter 3: Privacy Under Siege.” The Transparent Society. (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1998). 3-26

December 4:   Catch-up and Review

December 9:   Final Examination


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