business ethics  CONSUMER PRIVACY

Going online and taking advantage of what the Internet has to offer may require that you disclose personal information. Whether you’re new to the Net, or consider yourself savvy in the ways of the Web, you may have concerns about how personal information is collected, what choices you have about how it is used and shared, and under what circumstances you can access it.

Many of the creators of Consumer Privacy Guide believe that to assure the privacy of their personal information, consumers must have the protection provided by basic law. Law would provide Internet users with basic expectations about Web sites’ responsibilities for protecting the privacy of the personal information they collect. We continue to work toward this goal. But whether information in the online world is protected by law or not, consumers need information and tools to take charge of their privacy.

Privacy Guide gives you useful tips for protecting your privacy and helps you take control of the way your information is used. It attempts to answer your questions, in consumer friendly, practical terms, about what you can do to assure that information that you choose to share with companies is used in ways you believe are appropriate. This site will explain terms used on the Internet that may be unfamiliar to you, provide “how-to” guides to understanding privacy resources and technologies, and point you toward other helpful resources.

Consumer Privacy

Advances in computer processing power, database software, and communication technologies have given us the power to collect, manipulate, and disseminate personal information about consumers on a scale unprecedented in the history of the human race. This new power over the collection, manipulation, and dissemination of personal information has enabled mass invasions of the privacy of consumers and has created the potential for significant harms arising from mistaken or false information. For example, a pair of British investigators reported that in England, where companies register with the government the kind of information they will collect, businesses were collecting highly detailed and very personal information about their customers.

Speaking broadly, the right to privacy is the right to be left alone. We do not discuss this broad characterization of the right to privacy, however, but concentrate on privacy as the right of a person not to have others spy on his or her private life. In this more narrow sense, the right to privacy can be defined as the right of persons to determine what, to whom, and how much information about themselves will be disclosed to other parties.

There are two basic types of privacy:

Psychological privacy is privacy with respect to a person’s inner life. This includes the person’s thoughts and plans, personal beliefs and values, feelings, and wants. These inner aspects of a person are so intimately connected with the person that to invade them is almost an invasion of the very person.

Physical privacy is privacy with respect to a person’s physical activities. For example, a person in our culture normally feels degraded if force to disrobe publicly or perform biological or sexual functions in public. Physical privacy, therefore, is also valued for its own sake.

Privacy is also important because it has several enabling functions. First, privacy enables a person to develop ties of friendship, love, and trust. Without intimacy, these relationships could not flourish. Intimacy, however, requires both sharing information about oneself that is not shared with everyone and engaging in special activities with others that are not publicly performed. Therefore, without privacy, intimacy would be impossible and relationships of friendship, love, and trust could not exist.

Second, privacy enables certain professional relationships to exist. Insofar as the relationships between doctor and patient, lawyer and client, and psychiatrist and patient all require trust and confidentiality, they could not exist without privacy.

Third, privacy also enables a person to sustain distinct social roles. The executive of a corporation, for example, may want, as a private citizen, to support a cause that is unpopular with his of her firm. Privacy enables the executive to do so without fear of reprisal.

Fourth, privacy enables people to determine who they are by giving them control of the way they present themselves to society in general and of the way that society in general looks on them. At the same time, privacy enables people to present themselves in special way to those whom they select. In both cases, this self-determination is secured by the right of the individual to determinate the nature and extent of disclosure of information about oneself.

It must be balanced, however, with the rights and needs of others. Banks must know something about the credit history of those to whom they are lending money, for example. Since consumers benefit from the banking system, they also benefit from their right to privacy being balanced against the banks’ right to know their personal information.

To balance these two factors, the following factors are crucial:

1.  Relevance -Databases should contain only information directly relevant to the purpose for which it is collected.

2.  Informing - Consumers should be informed that information is being collected and told what the purpose of its collection is.

3.  Consent -Businesses should collect information only if consumers consent to provide it.

4.  Accuracy -Agencies must ensure that the information is up to date and otherwise accurate, quickly correcting any errors.

5.  Purpose -The purpose for which the information is collected must be legitimate, resulting in benefits generally enjoyed by those who are having the information gathered from them.

6.  Recipients and Security -Agencies must ensure that the information is secure and not available to unintended users or sold to others without the individual’s consent.

Privacy is the number one concern of Internet users; it is also the top reason why non-users still avoid the Internet. Survey after survey indicates mounting concern. While privacy faces threats from both private and government intrusions, the existing motley patchwork of privacy laws and practices fails to provide comprehensive protection. Instead, it causes confusion that fuels a sense of distrust and skepticism, limiting realization of the Internet’s potential.

A unique combination of tools –legal, technical, and self-regulatory –is being designed to address the privacy concerns of Internet users. Top-priority objectives include setting limits on government access to personal information, ensuring that new information and communication technologies are designed in ways that protect rather than diminish privacy, and developing appropriate federal legislation to set baseline standards for consumer privacy. This guide is intended to educate Internet users about online privacy, and offer practical suggestions and policy recommendations.

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