A person’s right to privacy has been highly cherished in the US and in many countries across the world. This is because the consequences for victims of privacy intrusion can be devastating, ranging from hurtful gossips to stealing of identity and even damaged credit ratings (Chiu, 2000). Even though most intrusions of privacy are discreet, of diminutive value, and apparently do little harm beyond unnecessary junk mails, such reckless acts already worries the mind of many internet users all over the world (Chiu, 2000). Internet privacy subjects covers all the concerns about the information collected by the website operators and by spying soft wares, and about the level to which law enforcement agencies are permitted to monitor one’s internet activities (Lackey, 2002).
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Although internet is becoming popular among many users on a global scale, majority of these people still remains unfamiliar and doubtful about the level of security and privacy on the internet (Lipford et al. 2009). Each and everyday people gain access or try to gain access to others computers or internet accounts without permission, either to read, copy, alter or to destroy information contained within. These people range from young children to unsatisfied employees/ex-workers, to criminals, to opponents, to political or socially motivated groups, to agents of foreign states (Chiu, 2000).
According to the consumer survey carried out by Jupiter Media Matrix (a company firm that specializes in internet analysis and evaluation) discovered that consumers are becoming more concerned about their privacy online (Lackey, 2002). Some of the major consumer concerns include irritating yet relatively harmless intrusion into their personal lives, such as unwanted e-mails, to criminal acts that involves acquiring personal information, for example stealing of identity. Lackey, (2002) categorises consumer concerns into four groups namely harm and fraud, sensitive information, nuisance and consumer confidence destroyers, and state related concerns.
The first category of consumer concern which encompasses harm and fraud include activities such as stealing of identity and credit card fraud among others which are committed by acquiring others personal information (Smith et al. 2005). Internet solicitation/purchase is among the methods that are used to obtain others personal information according to the identity theft complaints received by the US federal government in the last decade (Smith et al. 2005). Security analysts and fraud investigators still admits that internet has generated a new category of criminals known as hackers that are very hard to apprehend. Hackers specialize in stealing and destroying large amount of information from personal to company’s databases (Lipford et al. 2009).
The second category of consumer concerns that touches on sensitive information includes private/personal information that can be used by others to embarrass, harm or discriminate the victims (Smith et al. 2005). Common examples of sensitive information comprises of medical information, business information, financial information, family matters among others. Majority of the internet users who are looking for health information online fear that insurance companies might revise their coverage after reassessing the accessed information online according to the report by Pew internet and American life project (Lipford et al. 2009).
Last but not the least of the major consumer concerns is the government related concern. In order to enhance its service delivery, most governments are nowadays embracing electronic government otherwise known as e-government. However, electronic government raises a number of privacy concerns among the users (Smith et al. 2005). Among the concerns is the use of the cookies to track visitors to government sites. Government records also allow website sites and online access to citizen’s private information. Without a doubt, posting government records to the internet has drawn mixed reactions to the volume of personal information, most often those which are sensitive in nature that is a matter of public record. In addition, consumers are nowadays becoming more wary of the advanced communication surveillance technology which will enable the government to monitor the general public as never before (Lipford et al. 2009).
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The Privacy Act
The Federal privacy act was established to protect the privacy of individuals as recognised in the federal system. The act limits revelation of personally identifiable records upheld by the federal agencies. This law also grants an individual the right to seek amendment on the records upon giving sufficient evidence that the records are not accurate, relevant, and timely and establishes a culture of fair information practice among the stakeholders (Krishnamurthy, 2009).
The general exemptions of the act, which are agency and function-oriented, allows the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the federal criminal law enforcement bureaus to exclude certain systems of records from the privacy act’s requirements (Lackey, 2002). The overall exemption for the Central Intelligence Agency covers all of its files. The exemption for the federal criminal law enforcement agency encompasses identifying information, criminal investigative apparatus, and reports assembled between the stages of arrest and release from the agency’s supervision (Baines, 2003).
The prohibition of disclosing customer’s information is contained in the disclosure rule which is a sub set of the Act. Disclosure entails information transfer from one agency to another or from one large department of the agency to another department. This rule limits sharing of personal information among the agencies for other purposes other than the purpose it was originally collected (Lackey, 2002).
Statutory exemptions are applicable to the information collection and sharing activities of the Total Information Awareness system, and would appear to permit the disclosure of personal information in federal records systems without the permission of an individual (Krishnamurthy, 2009). The routine use exemption allows an agency to share, without permission, a person’s personal information with other agencies if that sharing is regarded as a routine use for that agency in the federal register and is in line with the purpose of the collected information. The exemption for national and criminal law enforcement activities allows for the disclosure of individual information for legally certified activities (Baines, 2003).
State laws on internet privacy
The state of Nevada requires Internet providers to uphold privacy on confident information relating to their subscribers unless the subscriber approves the disclosure.. These states acts are Minnesota statutes 325M.01 to 09 and Nevada revised statutes 205.498 (Lackey, 2002).
Moreover, the California and Utah state laws requires that all financial businesses to disclose to their customers, in written or via email, the nature of personal information they wish to share with the third party. The state of Connecticut and Delaware requires employers to provide notice to their workers before monitoring their email communication or internet access. Delaware law is found in Act 19-7-705, Connecticut Act 31-48d, Colorado Act 24-72-204 and Tennessee Act 10-7-512 (Lackey, 2002).
All these laws prohibit the employer and the state from monitoring e-mails, internet access or usage of a person unless the individual gives his/her consent in writing or electronic notice. These laws also provides for an exception during computer system maintenance /or protection, and from the court order. There are also penalties attached to the violation of the laws and this differs from state to state (Chiu, 2000).
The Michigan bill prohibits internet service providers from disclosing customer’s personal information, to either affiliate or third party without the customer’s approval. This act was introduced in the year 2002 and defines personal information as customer’s e-mail address, social security number, date of birth, income, job description, credit and debit card information, address, telephone number and mother’s maiden name (Lackey, 2002).
In addition, the term also encompasses any information collected by means of following the customer’s internet activities, IP connection history, preferences, equipment, soft ware or user profile. The penalty for violating the above law ranges from $100 to $500 (Lackey, 2002).Patriotic Act of 2001 signed by the former US President gave the state agencies power to counter any terrorism attack. Besides acting on the terrorist acts, it amended several existing laws, for use in investigation of internet crimes among others offences.
Protecting children from Unsuitable sites
Preventing children from accessing unsuitable internet sites and materials such as pornography poses a major challenge to many governments. A number of laws have been passed and in US these laws are summarised in a congress report entitled status of legislative attempts to protect children from unsuitable materials from the web. These laws include Communication decency act of 1996, Child online protection act of 1998, and children internet protection act of 2000 (CRS (a), n.d).
Children’s Internet Protection Act requires all the educational institutions handling children to use filtering technology to prevent children from accessing web pages that contain materials that are obscene, and detrimental to the children (CRS (b), n.d). The act also requires libraries funded by the federal government to block websites containing pornographic and other obscene materials from being accessed by adults. In this case adults who have right of information are denied the same by the government through the Act and therefore have to seek for the same information in private libraries or cybercafé (CRS (a), n.d).
Internet privacy versus digital piracy and copyright infringement
Digital piracy encompasses the infringement of copyrighted contents such as music, films, soft wares, broadcasting, and books, among others and does not involve the use of hard media such as CDs and DVDs (Al-Rafee & Cronan, 2006). There is no specific definition of digital piracy which can be more accurately described as digital infringement of copyright. This lack of consensus in its definition is as a result of its treatment within different jurisdictions. Some illegal activities in one jurisdiction can be legal in others (Al-Rafee & Cronan, 2006).
Computing technology and internet has facilitated the collection and transmission of digital contents between the suppliers and customer (Cheng et al., 1997). The global nature of internet means that the market for these digital products is potentially large. This has also increased online services aimed at enhancing data exchanges over the internet, for instance peer to peer networks that facilitate sharing of digital contents among the users. This has led to a major catastrophe in the internet world known as digital piracy where digital products are exchanged free of charge denying other people such as musicians their sweat of labour (Al-Rafee & Cronan, 2006).
Most studies show that consumers of the pirated digital products are very aware that digital piracy is illegal but they don’t perceive it as unethical. Besides, many people especially the youth take part in digital piracy for recognition by their peers- for technical capabilities, and its status, rather than for financial reward that drives the activity (Cheng et al., 1997). Digital piracy also exposes the computers to malicious soft wares (virus and worms) that can infiltrate and damage the computer system (Yu, 2007).
Unlike the counterfeiting and piracy of physical goods, digital piracy is very hard to detect within the national borders. The flows of these pirated digital products have become more difficult to track by the law enforcement agencies. The large amount of money involved also poses the major challenge for effective international cooperation among the policing agencies (Al-Rafee & Cronan, 2006). Nevertheless, there are number cases where the law enforcement agencies have made successful arrests of the people involved within different jurisdictions through cooperation (Al-Rafee & Cronan, 2006).
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The existing laws and regulation are two broad and general to tackle effectively the problems associated with the fast technological advancement including digital piracy. Therefore, the federal policy makers are working tirelessly to enact specific laws that would deal with these infringements. Example of such laws include Federal electronic communication act (Act: 18-2511) which gives state power to gain access to the accounts of these criminal elements so as to put them on book (Lackey, 2002). Since digital piracy affects copyright products that are highly perishable in nature such as live broadcasting, policy makers are coming up with ways of speeding up their legal systems to tackle such cases. Digital piracy is forms a major example of how internet privacy is increasingly violated (Al-Rafee & Cronan, 2006).
Striking the balance between privacy and the Business/government policies
Consumers, businesses and the state face a trade-off when addressing the consumers’ concern about the internet privacy. When the consumers snub cookies to prevent tracking of their internet activities, they also deprive themselves of the technology that may allow fast, and personalized services (Chiu, 2000). By gathering no personal information from the Website visitors, business organizations would quash privacy concerns but would deny consumers of convenient, customized services (Cheng et al., 1997).
On the other hand when government avails no public information to prevent its use for the illegal reasons, they would ignore an incomparable tool for providing general public with open access to government information. This raises very big challenges in resolving internet privacy concerns without limiting the unique benefits of the internet. In this case, internet consumers must be educated on the trade-offs for privacy since information is the major resource of the internet and online technology is designed to enhance these flow (Baines, 2003).
When consumers opt to slow or end the flow, they lose some of the benefits of the internet experience such as speedy access to websites, web pages customized for their personal interests, and convenient recollection of the commonly requested information (Chiu, 2000). In addition, some websites for instance online newspapers requires consumers to register to receive free services. Therefore, consumers have to choose between, value for personal information and online free services to receive these benefits. In this case consumers have to choose the best trade-off between privacy protection and internet utilization efficiency (Yu, 2007).
Ways in which Consumers can protect their internet privacy
Consumers must realize that most of the online communication channels have no privacy protection and are legally open to the general public. Therefore they have to device ways by which they can protect their privacy while using internet services (Lackey, 2002). The privacy rights clearing house which is a non-profit consumer education and supportive program, categorises internet activities as public, private and semi-private. Public activities encompass all activities carried out on public sites. A consumer can maintain privacy in these sites by limiting the amount of personal information they provide to the directories (Yu, 2007).
Private activities or services in the internet include services like e-mail. The federal electronic communication privacy act (FCPA) prohibits reading and disclosing contents of an electronic communication to include e-mail messages (Act: 18-2511) (Baines, 2003). However, consumers must be aware of the exemptions to this law. The first exemption is when the subscriber is suspected to be trying to destroy the system or injure other internet users. The Internet service provider is permitted to access the suspect’s private mails. The other exemption is when both the sender and the recipient approve access by the third party (Lackey, 2002).
Semi-private activities include services such as Chat rooms which have security or passwords. In most cases these services are for members only but a member can copy its contents and use it elsewhere (Lackey, 2002). These groups are also protected by the above federal act applying to private activities and shares the same exemptions. In order to safeguard privacy in these services consumers should not give information that they would not desire to be shared widely (Lackey, 2002).
Many countries are experiencing the growing number of internet users from individual persons, to businesses and the government at large. On the other hand, the advancement in information technology is also posing its challenge one of them being internet privacy threats. Internet privacy can be compromised by individual criminal elements known as hackers, business employers and even the government. Infringement of personal online information in many cases is ignored by the internet users but they can result to very grave consequences. These ranges from hurtful gossips to stealing of identity and even damaged credit ratings.
State and federal governments have enacted a number of legislation to tackle this problem. These laws prohibit disclosure of identifiable personal information unless there is consent of the user. Other exemptions include matters of state security, court order and other criminal acts. These laws also encompass child protection from unsuitable materials, digital piracy and copy right infringement among other issues. Internet users must be aware of the facts that many internet sites are public in nature and therefore should device ways of maintaining privacy like concealing identity. They should also be known that some of the measure to maintain privacy deprives them of some of the benefits of internet services such as speedy browsing.
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