The internet has become a vital tool for obtaining information, trading, learning, politics administration, socialisation, and entertainment in the world. Today, a considerable population of the world uses the internet on a daily basis. However, the issue of information privacy has continued to draw the attention of individuals, human rights organisations, and governments. Public nature of internet messages makes it possible for personal identity and information to be accessed by other parties. Personal identity theft has led the debate on the internet safety across the world. Lack of concrete privacy policies to regulate the internet use has made it difficult to manage the issue of privacy. This paper explores the issue of the internet and ethical debate on information privacy.
Information Privacy on the Internet
According to Bélanger and Crossler (2011), the internet refers to worldwide-interconnected computer systems. It constitutes the Global Information Infrastructure (GII) that links computer networks across the globe. The internet was developed over the years from the initial ARPANER that was used by the US military in the 1960s. Bélanger and Crossler (2011) confirm that the modern internet comprises the World Wide Web (WWW), gopher, and the File Transfer Protocol (FTP). Since the internet does not belong to an individual or a nation, it is regarded as a public property.
According to Sipior, Ward, and Mendoza (2011), the nature of the internet makes it difficult to draw the line between what constitutes private and/or public information. The internet allows users to access information that has been stored in databases, share information with friends, and even search information on different topical issues.
The issue of internet privacy has therefore remained a big debate across the world. According to Luzak (2014), privacy refers to the interest that individuals have in protecting their personal information. Privacy may also have an aspect of protecting individual’s property and space from intrusion by others. The debate on privacy issues on the internet has further referred to information concerning an individual that can be used as a commercial commodity. Most of the internet users value privacy of their information. They are wary of having someone else monitoring their online activities. Sipior, Ward, and Mendoza (2011) reveal that the fact that every computer can be accessed through a unique Internet Protocol (IP) address poses a threat to privacy.
Various strategies such as using cookies and search engines have been used to retrieve personal information by data miners with an aim of selling it to advertisers. Most of the internet users are not aware that their privacy is being intruded when they are prompted to provide personal information on the internet. Other users may access such information without necessarily having the owner’s authorisation. Various activities on the internet have caused ethical debate on user information privacy as discussed in the next section.
Ethical Aspects Concerning the Use of the Internet Cookies
Sipior, Ward, and Mendoza (2011) define cookies as data gathering tools that are used in recording and storing specific user information. Such information may include users’ passwords, the websites that they visit, and their buying trend. According to Thierer (2013), through cookies, online vendors are able to record and track internet users that visited their sites. Debate on the accessibility of personal information and activities without any formal consent has been a cause of privacy debate.
Luzak (2014) affirms that owners of certain websites that have cookies or spywares can identify all merchants who visited their sites and the activities or products that they purchased. Information about online buyers is then used to advertise products to the target markets. For example, data that is captured by cookies is stored in the website owners’ computer hard drive where it is automatically retrieved when such a user visits the site again. For example, after one visits a website and purchases a book, an advert of a similar book appears when he or she visits the site again. Sipior, Ward, and Mendoza (2011) observe that the debate on information privacy violation through cookies technology has been based on the premise that users’ online activities are monitored, recorded, and stored without their consent.
However, website owners and advertisers have opposed the blame of privacy violation. They cite that cookies just assist in profiling users’ shopping behaviour to provide them with the relevant market information to their advantage. In an effort to meet internet users wish to maintain privacy, various tools have been adopted to enhance privacy. For example, users apply Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). Bélanger and Crossler (2011) reveal that PGP enables internet users to identify the presence of a cookie when they surf the internet. They are then able to block it. This process protects the privacy of such users.
Ethical Aspects Concerning the use of Search Engines
Sipior, Ward, and Mendoza (2011) observe that search engines have also been used to collect personal information about individual users of internet. Search engines include internet-specific search tools such as Google and Yahoo. Search engines on the internet are able to link personal information that is stored in the internet system. Eventually, they retrieve it to any users who seek it. For example, people can access personal information that is stored in the internet system by entering their names on the search engine’s portal.
Ethical debate on information privacy continues to blame the use of search engines to access personal information without the consent from the users. In fact, Sipior, Ward, and Mendoza (2011) confirm that most internet users are not aware that the internet stores their personal information once it has been entered in other interfaces, for example in social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace. Search engines are also able to retrieve information that a user has added in personal websites. Access to such personal information via search engines may result in compromise of individuals’ data.
For example, if a user has been contributing to a social movement that is considered unacceptable by majorities, searching the user’s name will expose such information. Employers are also using search engines to look for names and personal information about candidates before interviews. This accessibility gives them personal information about candidates and the activities they will be involved in exposing them without their consent. Users have regarded such exposure of personal information to strangers as invasion of personal information privacy. However, Bélanger and Crossler (2011) observe that opponents of personal information privacy on the internet have claimed that all information on the internet is public since the internet is a public system.
By posting information on the internet, users are said to be involving themselves in a public space and open affairs. Hence, they should not seek protection. If one has submitted his or her information on the internet, either knowingly or unknowingly, the public can access such information. Search engines enable internet users to find specific information on a variety of topics. Personal contributions on such topics are therefore availed to all interested person who search it.
Ethical Aspects Concerning Online Dataveillance and Data Gathering
The use of the internet for surveillance purposes has also been a point of debate. Opponents of personal information privacy have cited that the internet is a surveillance tool that is used in monitoring individual user information and actions. Luzak (2014) holds the opinion that since the internet can be used in collecting and monitoring data concerning individuals, it becomes a threat to their personal information privacy. The internet user cannot be sure that someone else does not monitor his or her personal information and activities online. Businesses and private advertisers can monitor and store information about users who visit their websites using spywares.
Advertisers depend on data surveillance in monitoring the trends of users and buyers of their product (Daller 2010). Information that is gathered in the process is used in developing advertisements that are customised to their likes and tastes. The controversy over this process is centred on the fact that data surveillance invades personal information privacy. In fact, the process records all steps that a user makes, including a click on the computer mouse or a tap on a laptop or Smartphone. Advocates of personal information privacy consider this intrusion an unfair stalking of internet users without their knowledge.
On the other hand, data gathering is also conducted on the internet implicitly or explicitly. Personal data mining is conducted online in various ways. For example, the user may be prompted to fill online forms. Forms are voluntary questionnaire that the user fills by giving personal details such as name, age, email address, and preferences. Although these forms are filled voluntarily, privacy debates have emerged concerning how such data is used and publicised on the internet.
Thierer (2013) observes that most of the internet users are not aware of the importance of filling forms and/or the use of the information that they give out. Such ignorance prompts users to give all information that is requested in the web forms. In addition, the internet web browsers are capable of gathering personal data about the user, for example their email addresses, location, and computer brands. Indirect personal data collection has been considered unethical. Identity thieves have used such data in committing online crimes. Worse, data miners may not necessarily vet the advertisers who seek to buy data from them.
Thugs have used data on personal location that is also collected indirectly in planning acts of robbery and harm. Data collectors eventually bring together data that has been collected indirectly and the one that has been gathered via forms to make a complete database about an individual internet user. Online companies therefore profile the user for advertisements. These companies also sell the database that has been profiled about different users to advertisers at very high prices. Therefore, this activity of using personal information to make money is considered unethical by most of the proponents of information privacy. Information privacy advocates assert that it is wrong to obtain money and other gains using personal information without the owners’ consent.
Luzak (2014) reveals that data logging activities have increased in the internet over the years. Users are allowed to create personal profiles by providing personal information and passwords. For example, people have personal emails that they access using personalised emails. However, privacy issues creep in since internet users are required to fill forms before they are allowed to own such accounts. In the forms, the users provide detailed personal information to the providers. The forms may be used in indirect methods of gathering personal data for sale. This move is an ethical issue. Information privacy advocates cite that internet users should be informed about the use of information they provide when creating such personal accounts.
Ethical Aspects Concerning Data Exchange and Data Mining
Various online companies have specialised in gathering personal information either directly or indirectly with the aim of making profits. Bélanger and Crossler (2011) confirm that the process of online data exchange involves the selling of collected data to third parties. Selling of personal information online has resulted in people making profits using other individuals’ names and profiles. This act is considered an unethical internet practice.
Thierer (2013) asserts that the use of data mining techniques has also allowed access to information concerning an individual from main server databanks. Because of data mining, deep intelligence information concerning an individual within a long span of time can now be brought together to be sold online as a complete package. Personal information about his or her past can be obtained using the data mining technology.
Luzak (2014) says that since the internet can store personal information about how users do shopping or socialise, the websites they have visited in the past, and the items they have purchased, the situation has attracted a big debate about the privacy of information. For example, data mining may be used to gather information about a political contestant’s activities since he or she was young. If such a person engaged in controversial activities such as visiting pornographic sites, supporting some unpopular acts such as homosexuality, the data may be used to compromise him or her against the electorate.
This move has been considered an unethical internet practice. In addition, internet users have complained about wrong online profiling through data mining and spyware. For example, one may be a strong supporter of a certain brand of cars. However, whenever he or she searches online, he or she is referred to a completely different brand in order to make comparisons. With such data, dater miners will profile such a user in the wrong way. Advertisers who buy such database will always be advertising the wrong cars on their sites.
Fraud and Intellectual Property
With the increased access to personal information, cases of fraud continue to rise. The number of internet users continues to rise. The situation poses a greater risk to online commerce. People who buy online goods and/or pay for online goods are likely to fall victims to online fraud. This situation is attributed to the fact that whenever people are prompted to enter their bank account and personal identification numbers on the internet, a controller is always monitoring on the receiving end. Such controllers may not be genuine since there has been an influx of fake vendors who prompt buyers to pay for their goods online. Thierer (2013) warns that fraudulent systems record buyers’ personal details and use them to withdraw money from their bank accounts without their (owners) authority. Such acts have been considered unethical. Online buyers need to be cautious when paying for goods and services online (Centre for Pharmacy 2014).
In addition, Bélanger and Crossler (2011) observe that online buyers have also been presented with false information by fraudulent vendors on the internet. Internet users have been subjected to advertisements of fake products or products that do not exist at all. For example, users have been conned whey they spot an item that they want to buy, especially when they begin exchanging information with sellers on their websites. Such buyers are then requested to make a down payment before the delivery of the item, only for the item to fail to be delivered. In other cases, the way an item appears based on the description on the internet turns to be a complete opposite.
Luzak (2014) observes that ethical issues surrounding theft of intellectual property online have increased with the increase in internet speed and use of mp3. This technology allows file sharing between people such as employees (Lewis 2014). Individuals can download music and videos from the internet and sell them. They end up violating owner’s patent rights. This intrusion is considered an unprincipled access and sale of personal information.
The internet has caused an ethical debate on people’s information privacy. Various activities on the internet have resulted in complaints of unethical practices. Ethical debates on personal information privacy range from the use of search engines, cookies and spyware, data mining, and data surveillance to fraud and violation of patent rights. Therefore, it is important to treat the issue of personal information with a high ethical consideration, especially by advertisers. There is a need to devise effective technology to protect private information to solve this problem.
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