Information Technology Privacy

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Information technology is one of the greatest innovations in the history of man. IT has improved all spheres of life from the service sector to communication and socializing. The rapid developments facilitated by IT call for careful consideration regarding its effects. Many have described IT as a digital revolution similar to those initiated by Freud, Darwin and Copernicus to understand the nature of humanity, while others are likening it to the 19th-century industrial revolution (Floridi, 2008). The security concerns associated with information technology have resulted in the establishment of privacy systems and laws meant to control its utilization. However, to understand the importance of these laws, it is necessary to define the scope of information technology and some of the concerns raised by its features.

What is Information Technology?

Information technology means the use of automated mechanisms to store, process and distribute information. Typically, it involves the utilization of communication networks and computers. Some of the main features of information technology include computerized machines, the internet and mobile devices. The amount of data that an information system can store or process is dependent on the kind of technology applied. Over the years, there have been significant advancements in technology in terms of storage, processing and network bandwidth. It is now possible to store and process information on an exabyte level (Floridi, 2008).

Ethical Issues Associated with Information Technology

No one predicted that the World Wide Web (the internet) would be subject to misuse. According to Ellison (2007), when social network websites emerged, they targeted people who were familiar with one another in real life and not for worldwide users. The assumption was that socializing with friends was not harmful, and the need for security or privacy arose only when the network of friends grew larger.

The issue of internet privacy is mainly associated with cookies (Palmer, 2005). Cookies can be defined as small bits of information stored by websites on a users computer to help them personalize the site. Some cookies track the user as he accesses multiple sites, hence facilitating the advertisement of services or products that a user has already viewed on a different website. This is known as data mining. Laws that request user content when using cookies have not been successful since the user usually clicks away requests for authorization, merely regarding them as a nuisance.

Data mining is used to acquire patterns from the information used to derive conclusions about users. Depending on who has access to the data, data mining can have different effects on a user. According to Hildebrandt (2008), service providers use information that users submit to their sites to profile them by creating a combination of their properties to predict their behavior and interests. Such derivations may lead to discrimination or inequality. For instance, profiling can be used as a basis for denying insurance to a particular group of people; in most cases, profits motivate such forms of discrimination. Government and other influential organizations may use profiling to discriminate against certain groups of people regarding the access to important amenities.

Data is not only collected through internet transactions, but it can be gathered when one is shopping through surveillance camera recordings of public and private places or when one uses a smart card to pay for public transport. The data collected from these avenues may also be used for profiling. For instance, insurance companies may use a persons shopping data to draw conclusions. The European Union data protection law holds that processing of personal data requires authorization and the information should only be used for the intended purpose (Dahl & Saetnan, 2009).

One of the main security threats arising from the internet is storing of sensitive personal information in a cloud. According to Ruiter and Warnier (2011), the development of cloud computing has increased privacy concerns. Initially, user information and programs were stored locally, a system that prevented the access of program venders to usage and data statistics. The cloud computing technology places both user information and programs on the internet/cloud, and it is not yet clear what the information is used for. Additionally, since a users information is stored online, it is not clear what laws are applicable or which authorities can request to access that information. Furthermore, information gathered online by applications and other services such as games and search engines raises significant privacy concerns.

Another popular feature of the internet is social media. Interactive web (Web 2.0) poses major challenges to privacy. The question does not only involve limiting the access to user information, but also includes limiting requests to users for personal information. Social sites encourage users to add significant personal information to complete their profile. This initiative tempts the user to exchange personal data for using the services. Additionally, users are encouraged to like buttons not knowing what information they are providing. Although one way to limit users from sharing information is through strict privacy settings, these restrictions only limit other users from accessing the information and not the social site providers.

Besides the internet sites, mobile devices threaten the privacy of users. IT devices that pose huge threats to privacy include GPS (Global Positioning System) sensors in phones and Radio Frequency Identification (RFI) chips found on passports and smart cards used for paying for public transport. These devices can be used to locate users or access their personal information.

Measures Adopted to Prevent the Threat to Privacy Posed by Information Technology

Cryptography

Cryptography is an ancient method of protecting data that started with the Caesar cipher over 2,000 years ago. The current cryptographic methods are essential to protecting personal data when utilized correctly. There are many different techniques used for accessing encrypted data, and one of the most recent trends in cryptography is homomorphic encryption (Gentry, 2009). This form of encryption allows users to send sensitive data in an encrypted manner and receive useful feedback from a data processor, for example, getting recommendations of novels that are popular in an encrypted form. The user can decrypt the information without sharing any personal data information with the data processor. Homomorphic encryption can also be used for sending encrypted data; therefore, it is useful for both privacy protection and relaying anonymized information.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA)

The CFAA was a 1986 Amendment Act to another security-based Act, the Counterfeit Access Device and Abuse Act. According to this Act, a person who intentionally gains access to a computer without permission or oversteps his/her permitted access is guilty of the crime of breaching data from a protected computer. The Act is a law aimed at addressing cases of interference with personal computers and federal computer crimes (Griffith, 1990). The main offenses stipulated in the Act include breaching a government computer system, accessing information on national security, acquiring information for the purpose of defrauding, damaging information or computers, threats to damage computers, trafficking passwords, and compromising a persons confidential information. Critics of this Act claim it has strict penalties, yet its definitions are not clear. These issues are likely to be addressed in the form of amendments to the Act in the future.

Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA)

The 1947 National Security Act was amended to cater for cybercrime in the form of CISPA. The Act describes cyber intelligence threats as data possessed by a member of the IC (Intelligence Community) regarding vulnerabilities in, or threats to a network or system of a private entity or government, including information on how to protect the network or system from either attempts to disrupt, degrade or compromise such a network or system (Kim & Chung, 2014).

CISPA stipulates how organizations share sensitive cyber threat information with the government (Kim & Chung, 2014). The critics of this Act express concerns about the inadequate protection of the law due to its broad definition of what constitutes a cyber threat. Critics argue that the Act provides few limitations to the government concerning accessing the private browsing information of users. Furthermore, they have expressed fears that the government may use these powers to justify spying on people rather than for pursuing hackers. However, lobbying groups and corporations such as Facebook, Microsoft, IBM and AT&T have lauded the Act for its effective approach towards sharing sensitive cyber threat data.

The world is a better place, thanks to the introduction of information technology. Despite the fact that IT has improved service sectors and lifestyles worldwide, it poses huge threats to the privacy of individuals and groups. The current measures adopted to fight against these threats include cryptographic technology, the Computer Threat and Abuse Act, and the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. Although these measures have been effective in reducing the effects of security and privacy breaches, there is room for improving the limitations and safeguards affecting the access to sensitive information.

References

Dahl, J. Y., & A.R. Saetnan, 2009, It all happened so slowly: On controlling function creep in forensic DNA databases, International journal of law, crime and justice, 37(3): 83103.

Ellison, N. B., 2007, Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1): 210230.

Floridi, L., 2008, Artificial intelligence's new frontier: Artificial companions and the fourth revolution, Metaphilosophy, 39(45): 651655.

Gentry, C., 2009, Fully homomorphic encryption using ideal lattices, in Proceedings of the 41st annual ACM symposium on Theory of computing, ACM, pp. 169178.

Griffith, D. S. (1990). Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986: A Measured Response to a Growing Problem, The. Vand. L. Rev., 43, 453.

Hildebrandt, M., 2008, Defining Profiling: A New Type of Knowledge? in Hildebrandt and Gutwirth 2008: 1745.

Kim, G. H., Trimi, S., & Chung, J. H. (2014). Big-data applications in the government sector. Communications of the ACM, 57(3), 78-85.

Krishnamurthy, B. & C.E. Wills, 2009. On the leakage of personally identifiable information via online social networks, in Proceedings of the 2nd ACM workshop on Online social networks, ACM, pp. 712.

Palmer, D.E., 2005, Pop-ups, cookies, and spam: toward a deeper analysis of the ethical significance of internet marketing practices, Journal of business ethics, 58(13): 271280.

Ruiter, J. & M. Warnier, 2011, Privacy Regulations for Cloud Computing: Compliance and Implementation in Theory and Practice, in Computers, Privacy and Data Protection: an Element of Choice, S. Gutwirth, Y. Poullet, P. De Hert, and R. Leenes (eds.), Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, pp. 361376.

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