The Crux of the Issue; Conclusions

Using the power of the computer, we have new methods to store, manipulate and catalogue enormous amounts of numbers, text, sounds and images. With computer networking, packets of data ebb and flow across the wired world at unprecedented speeds. Regardless of the type of information being transferred across the lines, it takes the form of pulses corresponding with binary values, switches of on and off.

These collections of ones and zeroes, of bits, are numerical values that are decoded, encoded, and processed by algorithms implemented in computer hardware and software. They have no "value" to the computer, in the human sense of the word. A quote from the Bible and string of random characters carry the same weight for the computer; context and meaning are irrelevant. A series of numbers that correspond with a command to print a character has no more significance to the computer than one that might correspond with a command to launch a nuclear missile.

In a revolutionary paper, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication," published in 1948, Claude Shannon of Bell Laboratories changed the meaning of the term information and established the field of information theory, the science of messages. At one point the word indicated a rational statement, a fact. Under the new definition,

"…information was no longer connected with the semantic content of statements. Rather, information comes to be a purely quantitative measure of communicative exchanges, especially as these take place through some mechanical channel which requires that message to be encoded and then decoded , say, into electronic impulses." (Roszak, 11)

This new meaning made the computer, as we know it today, a possibility. The computer is an embodiment of this view of information. The computer has no real concept of natural language, of context and meaning. The process we go through in encoding thought in word, and word in text on paper, is one step deeper for the computer; it converts each character to numbers. It can only execute procedural algorithms that mathematically manipulate symbolic data. "Information Processing" for the computer is a process twiddling bits, not of the traditional meaning understanding. Like a calculator (which is merely a more demystified computer), the computer simply crunches numbers.

The procedures used in this information processing embody the assumptions and foresight of the programmer, and are only as infallible as the logic employed in their creation. Much undeserved faith is put in the accuracy of the computer as an information processor, most often due to a fundamental misunderstanding of how the computer works and of the complexity of logic inherent in social and cultural exchanges. The computer blindly solves equations set before it, as accurately as its hardware and software implementation allows.

To human beings, who use computers as tools, the transfer and bulk processing of this data has great value. The results provided by the computer can be put to use in the "real world." The numbers can be used to make decisions. In some cases, the computer can direct motors that do repetitive physical work tirelessly, just as it can perform any other procedural manipulation. But it is the work of the human being to direct that work, to build and instruct the machine as to what is to be done and how, in the mathematical language which the computer can interpret.

Problems arise because the computer can hold information of particular social significance, which can fall into the hands of human beings that might use that information in social destructive or harmful ways. This creates a dilemma, as to how to watch and ensure that social values such as personal privacy rights are respected. The hope is to find a technological solution to solve a technological problem. But there is a serious problem with that view.

How can a purely mathematical rational device predict irrational motives?

Clearly, it is becoming impossible to interact in modern society without having one's information ending up in databases. Dealing with the complexity of a larger connected worldwide community, in order for businesses and government to provided specialized services they need this information. We have begun ceding this information to many "authorities" without question.

Once personal information is ceded, the control over where it might go next is no longer in the control of the individual to which it refers. So the key is to ensure that the information is only shared with those who will respect it, to promote awareness and the accurate statement of a information recipients privacy policy. Several groups have materialized to provide aspects of this solution. These include:

Certainly, these technological solutions will not be enough to enforce privacy protection compliance. It is becoming clearer that legislation must be enacted to enforce the protection privacy rights and to aid those who have been wronged can seek remedy.

Legislation has been passed by at least 15 of the European Union member nations, as per an EU directive that prohibits the buying and selling of personal data about European citizens. Web sites are required to inform users when data about them is being collected and must be allowed to refuse providing it. It is designed to restrict the amount of information about European citizens that is collected by companies in other countries, such as the US, where privacy laws are lax or nonexistent (Wired News). The US is lagging behind, instead favoring a policy of self-regulation. The FTC is coming under increasing pressure to push for privacy laws (Wired News). Many are on the table now, and the next few years will likely see the implementation of some sort of privacy protection legislation.

The protection of privacy on the Internet is still a developing issue, with many competing "solution" providers, many with vested interests. Because of the nature of computer-mediated data communication, and the difficulty and unpopularity of restricting information flow, it is an issue of great complexity. How will the protection of privacy rights ultimately be implemented? Time will tell the tale.

Considering the Business and Government Viewpoints

Big Business is
Watching You...

Some tips to Protect Your Personal Privacy


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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA).
Last revised: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 17:34:55 .  
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