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FRS105w : Privacy in an Age of Information Technology

Butler College

Fall 1998 - Freshman Seminar Program

Instructor: Helen Nissenbaum

Information technology puts vast powers of surveillance and record-keeping at the disposal not only of governments but of private institutions and individuals. Social critics have warned that this expanding ability to observe people, keep track of them, know them and then to record all of this information about them, is eroding privacy to a dangerous degree. It also threatens to erode the many interests and benefits that privacy safeguards. Defenders of information technology cite efficiency, efficacy, and safety among the countervailing benefits. We study the arguments of critics as well as defenders of contemporary record-keeping practices and will evaluate the philosophical and legal conceptions of privacy that underlie them.

The seminar comprises three parts. In the first, it examines real cases where record-keeping practices and surveillance have become controversial. Through these cases, we learn about the capabilities of contemporary technologies of information and ask probe various issues. These cases include anonymity on the Internet, privacy of medical and genetic information, and the comprehensive network of government and privately held databases. In the second part of the seminar, we move beyond analysis of actual practice to appreciate conceptual, legal and ethical foundations. We examine leading philosophical and legal theories of privacy asking such questions as: What is privacy? Why do we value it? Do we have a legal right to it? Do we have a moral right to it?

In the final part, we extend our vision to the broader social context and examine the relationship between privacy and other values associated with a free and democratic society. Our discussion will also cover practical aspects of contemporary privacy policy.


Priscilla Regan. Legislating Privacy: Technology, Social Values, and Public Policy (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995)

Judith Wagner DeCew. In Pursuit of Privacy: Law, Ethics, and the Rise of Technology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997)

Booth, W., Colomb, G. and Williams, J. The Craft of Research (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995) (Listed as BCW in Syllabus.)

Williams. J. Style. Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990)

Course Packet available for purchase from Triangle Repro of Princeton: 49 Hullfish Street.

Requirements and Grading:

Grades for the seminar will be decided on the basis of a student's performance in the following tasks:

1. End-of-term project (30%)
Students will form small groups each dedicated to studying an aspect of the problem of privacy. Students will share the task of research and writing joint reports of 20-30 pages each. Topics and assignments to groups will be discussed at the first meeting of the seminar. Projects will be planned and conducted jointly. The written portion will be assigned a uniform grade for the project group.

2. Short essays (40%)
Four short papers, approximately 3 pages long

3. Seminar participation (30%)

  • Student participation will be evaluated on the basis of the following:
  • Discussion questions submitted via email, due Monday 9 a.m.
  • Demonstrated acquaintance with weekly reading assignments and contribution to classroom discussion
  • Oral presentation of end-of-term project (individually graded).
  • Service as moderator of Newsgroup or compilation of weekly questions.
5. Fulfillment of Writing Requirement

In parallel with the seminar's progression through topics in privacy and information technology, it will focus on developing writing skills. During most sessions, time will be set aside to discuss aspects of writing.

On days when paper drafts are due, students will work in pairs, reading and critiquing each other's essays. Students will then be given the opportunity to revise their papers and are expected to take advantage of other tutoring opportunities:

  • At least one one-on-one meeting with Instructor.
  • At least one meeting with a Tutor in the Writing Center.
These tutoring sessions can be focused either on the short papers or the end-of-term project.

The "Reading for Writing" assignments will focus on a variety of aspects of good writing. Some are dedicated to improving students' writing craftsmanship, others to developing an overall paper structure and clear argumentation, and still others to improving skills required for completion of research reports.


Email Helen Nissenbaum
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