Privacy, Information, and Communication Technology

E59.1200.007 Integrating Liberal Arts


Monday 11AM-1:30PM


Instructor: Helen Nissenbaum, Department of Culture and Communication


On January 25, 1999, Scott McNealy, chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems, told a group of reporters and analysts on January 25, 1999, at the launch of Sun’s new Jini technology, “You have zero privacy anyway, get over it.”

McNealy’s comment reflects what many people believe, namely that technology, in particular, new media -- computers, information technology, and digital electronic networks -- have dramatically and irrevocably diminished our privacy. The picture, in fact, is far more complex. This course is a critical study of the multi-faceted relationship between privacy and technology.  We will study technical innovations as well as new applications of old technologies that have caused alarm, from photography, cheap printing, and wire-taps to databases, video surveillance cameras, biometrics, and the Internet; we will also take note of technologies that have been offered as “antidotes.” We will study the people, practices, institutions, and vested interests that have supported the application of these technologies to observe people, store information about them, and hold them accountable for their actions. We will review prominent theories of privacy, contemporary privacy policy, privacy law, and privacy as a social, legal, and moral value.


Course Readings:

A Course Reader may be purchases from MacDougal Copy Center, 127 MacDougal Street (betw. W3 & W4). Call before going: 212-460-8591. Almost all readings are contained in the course reader. Others are accessible online, including resources provided by key websites devoted to privacy.


Weston, A, A Rulebook for Arguments. 3rd. edition (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000)


Requirements and Grading Policy

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: participation (in-class and online), examination, and short essays. To pass the class, students pass each of the three elements.


30%      Participation (attendance, and in-class and online participation)

25%      Final Examination (based on readings)

45%      Essays (Three short essays)


Course Homepage Available Through Blackboard.

Check the homepage regularly for syllabus updates, useful external links, and announcements. An online discussion board provides a venue posting questions, ideas, observations, relevant news items, and more.




January 26:      Introduction to the Course


February 2:      Overview of Contemporary Privacy Landscape

We will explore the broad range of privacy issues raised by technological advances and new applications of existing technologies.


Assignment: Readings from drafts of first paper.




February 9:      Anonymity and Identifiability

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


Assignment: 1) Decide whether anonymous postings should be allowed; 2) Is caller-ID a good thing?




February 16:    Surveillance and Security

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.


Assignment: Map video surveillance cameras in Washington Square Park.




February 23:    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, worries of “big brother” were increasing on people’s minds, along with a sense that something needed to be done to control their proliferation and growth.


Assignment: What do we mean by “public records?” Provide some examples.




March 1:           Privacy in the Past and Today

Some people argue that we have more privacy today than every before. Others suggest that privacy advocates are misdirected in their quest because people are no longer interested in privacy. If people do not care, should they still, nevertheless, be protected?




March 8:           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?




March 15:         Recess


March 22:         Privacy and Law

Guest Lecturer: 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 some of both the skeptical and committed positions.




March 29:         Philosophical Conceptions of Privacy

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?




April 5: Privacy, Communications and the Media

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?


Assignment: Look into cases where investigative reporters have gone too far, violating privacy in the quest for a story? Are there cases of the opposite, timidity where aggressive pursuit and publication would have been socially more beneficial?




April 12:           Online Privacy

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?




April 19:           Privacy and Efficiency

Critics of strong protection have argued that privacy competes with other social values. Readings in this section make the case, generally, for business efficiency as one of those countervailing values.



·         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)

·         Cohen, Julie “DRM and Privacy” Communications of the ACM April 2003 Vole 46, No. 4: 47-49

·         Culnan, M. and Bies, R. “Consumer Privacy: Balancing Economic and Justice Considerations” Journal of Social Issues, Vol59, No 2, 2003: 323-342

·         Danna, A. and Gandy, O. “All that Glitters is Not Gold: Digging Beneath the Surface of Data Mining,” Journal of Business Ethics 40:373-386, 2002


April 26:           Technical Protections for 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.




May 3:              Review



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