The Double-Edged Sword: Technology vs. Privacy in the Computing Age

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The Double-Edged Sword: Technology vs. Privacy in the Computing Age

Kelly N. Nastasi1

Abstract: Privacy issues in the software engineering industry are becoming prevalent in the Computer Age with fast technology turnover rates and the rise of data analysis capabilities. With the countless number of ways in which individuals not only interact with technology but do so by inputting their information into Web portals – electronic commerce, social media and search engines – information technology has amplified ethical concerns. Technology today provides great advantages in capturing trends and information for people and events, but its ability to collect and store large data sets generates a huge level of responsibility for those who have access to them. The responsible party has to hold a high level of ethics and moral standards. In this way, the necessity for privacy to continue to exist in the face of such responsibility rests on bringing an ethical opinion to a largely practical and procedural field. Accordingly, this work will look at the ethical and moral implications present in today’s technology by examining such questions as: Why does it seem that ethical issues are on the rise? What is privacy? Do we need privacy? Before exploring these questions, the following paper begins by introducing trends in technology, presenting several current events and defining a working definition of privacy.

The Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT aptly required that all first-year students engage in an ethics based Computer Science course with this qualification: “You might think that a beginning Computer Science subject like this should focus only on purely technical issues of computers, systems, and languages. But if you go on at all to work in this field, you will also need to confront situations where new technology raises social and ethical issues; and in teaching this subject we would like to help prepare you for this” [1]. While MIT’s course presented this material more than twenty years ago, its relevance resonates today in the Computer Age. The Computer Age has picked up a great amount of momentum in globalized technological advancements that shows no sign of slowing down; the speed at which technology is being produced is astounding. It seems every day there is another technological interface being added to the countless number of ways in which individuals already interact with technology; from electronic commerce, social media, electronic mail, online dating and search engines, there is no end to the aspects of life technology penetrates. However, the prevalent nature of technology in humans’ everyday life does not come without negative consequences to privacy. As the professor of Information Systems at New York University, Kenneth C. Laudon, points out in his comprehensive text, Management Information Systems, “[T]echnology can be a double-edged sword. It can be the source of many benefits, and it can also create new opportunities for breaking the law or taking benefits away from others” [2]. It comes as no surprise then that MIT stresses the inherent ethical and moral situations that come with technology’s territory. “Often these situations can be extremely sticky both legally and ethically -- new technology raises issues at such a rate that our social and legal framework has not yet developed the laws and precedents that would provide agreed upon patterns of conduct” [1]. Technology is a double-edged sword: with one side we see collaboration, globalization and new opportunities; however, yield the sword the other way and we are dealt with an equal amount of ethical qualms and moral dilemmas in the form of privacy issues.

Accordingly, this work will focus on the cost of privacy in technology advancements by identify ethical and moral implications with such questions as: Why does it seem ethical issues are on the rise? What is privacy? How is privacy evolving? Do we need privacy? This paper begins by identifying several trends and current events which are relevant to our discussion of the “double-edged sword” dilemma. This leads us to a discussion of privacy before concluding with some ideas to balance the tradeoff between technology and privacy.
The Rise of Ethical Issues in Technology – The Trends

Do a Google search for “current ethical disputes in technology” and within 0.23 seconds approximately 174 million hits populate. This astounding number is by no means an accident. There is indeed a direct relationship between the rise in ethical issues and the advancements in technology. With this relationship, we see the double-edged sword dilemma: on one side we see the benefits of online data collection in collaboration, globalization and new opportunities; however, yield the sword the other way and we are dealt with an equal amount of ethical qualms and moral dilemmas in the form of privacy issues. According to Carl Landwehr, editor in chief for IEEE Security & Privacy, “The continuing intertwined evolution of technology and society keeps raising new ethical issues” [3]. But why? Why is it that ethical issues seem to rise just as quickly as technology advances? In Table 1, I have recreated the data which Laudon presented in his text, Management Information Systems. This table defines the four key trends in technology that lead to rising ethical issues.

Table 1 - Technology Trends That Raise Ethical Issues [2]

Computing power doubles every 18 months

More organizations depend on computer systems for critical operations.

Data storage costs rapidly declining

Organizations can easily maintain detailed databases on individuals.

Data analysis advances

Companies can analyze vast quantities of data gathered on individuals to develop detailed profiles of individual behavior.

Networking advances and the Internet

Copying data from one location to another and accessing personal data from remote locations are much easier.

From Table 1, the most critical trend lies in the first entry: “Computing power doubles every 18 months.” As computing power doubles we see greater levels of technology integration in all aspects of life. Companies and individuals alike come to depend on the beneficial qualities and convenience that technology brings to such aspects of daily living as communication, online shopping, research and even paying bills. More importantly, increasing computing power is the foundation with which the remaining technology trends are built upon. If computing power does not exist, then the ability to mine data is diminished simultaneously decreasing the need for data storage. Decreased data means there is less data to analyze and networking advances become a wash. From this sequence of reasoning, it is easy to see that computing power is the foundation for the remaining technology trends listed above in Table 1. With a basic understanding of these trends, an argument can now be made that with growing computing power, more data can be collected and thus privacy seems to be decreasing.

Current Events

The increase in computing power multiplies the number of everyday interactions with technology. As previously mentioned, this opens doors to just as many negative qualms and privacy disputes as it bares positive conveniences. In fact, it is not uncommon to find large technology companies, service providers or social media outlets being connected to a data collection privacy dispute. This leads us to look at several recent cases from Bell Canada (telecommunications), Edward Snowden (former CIA employee) and Facebook (social media outlet). Consider these cases:

  1. Bell Canada: In November 2013 the Canadian based telecommunications company, Bell, will begin to collect their customers’ data in order to create a “relevant ads” project. Once the data is collected, customers will be presented with advertisements that adhere to their individual interests. Customers have until November 16, 2013 to “opt out” of the program. [4]

  1. Edward Snowden: In May 2013 Edward Snowden, a CIA employee and NSA contractor, supplied the U.K. based newspaper, The Guardian, with top-secret NSA documents. These documents exposed a U.S. surveillance program that targeted Internet and phone communications of the general public. Identified as a “whistleblower,” and now exiled from the United States, Snowden previously declared: “The surveillance of whole populations rather than individuals threatens to be the greatest human rights challenge of our time.” [5]

  1. Facebook: In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged the online social networking site, Facebook, with deceiving consumers. According to the FTC, Facebook initially told users that their information would stay private but later allowed it to become public without their consent. In 2011 Facebook settled with the FTC and recently sent a massive message to its users explaining that it changed its privacy policies. This new change states that in order to join Facebook, users have to give the site permission to use their information in advertising. [6] [7]

While all of these current events present issues of privacy infringement, it is privacy that is affected as technology and computing power grow with data analysis and data collection capabilities. Also, it is important to note that privacy issues can multiply on a global scale by means of technology capabilities and the Internet. For example, in the Edward Snowden case we can see that the United Kingdom was involved with its web-based newspaper, The Guardian and later Russia became involved when the United States exiled Edward Snowden as a traitor. With this example, it is clear that technology and the Internet can amplify the affects of the trade-off between technology advancements and privacy.

A Working Definition: What is Privacy and How is it Evolving?

Up until now this paper has demonstrated the trends which bring rise to ethical issues, brought forth ideas of the relationship that exists between technology and privacy, and identified related current events. But this begs us to ask, what is privacy in the context of technology? Privacy brings to mind notions of information confidentiality, secrecy or simply being alone. Privacy has a broad and ambiguous definition that varies by cultural influences and governmental policies. For the purposes of this paper, we will begin with a definition of privacy provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce:

“Information Technology (IT) Privacy is the protection of personally identifiable or business identifiable information that is collected from respondents through information collection activities or from other sources” [8].
While the U.S. Department of Commerce has provided us with this definition of privacy, in the wake of technology, privacy is an evolving term and usually an afterthought in a world where technology is developing at breakneck speed due in part to the trends previously mentioned in Table 1. According to Paul Sholtz, Chief Technology Officer of PrivacyRight Inc.,We live in an extremely sophisticated and complex society, and oftentimes our language has not evolved as rapidly as our technology and social conditions have changed. This is certainly the case with the word ‘privacy,’ which carries many different shades of meaning to many different groups of people in many different situations” [9]. Sholtz continues to point out that the meaning of privacy is becoming dynamic and is evolving into a “blanket term.” It seems evident that with the rapid development of technology, privacy now stands to define two separate aspects of society: the marketplace in which individuals act as consumers and the government in which individuals act as citizens. In the marketplace, consumers’ personal information and data is shared amongst third parties in the name of targeted advertising and marketing, while in the government realm, wiretapping and surveillance take away civil liberties in the name of security. Ultimately, society will need to implement “separate and unique terms to describe each of these very different and unique concepts,” as we move forward in the Computer Age [9]. Sholtz presents an interesting argument which begins to clarify the ambiguous and broad use of the word “privacy”. With diverse applications, technology provides benefits across all aspects of life opening the door for various social and ethical implications. The breadth of technology agrees with the broad interpretation of privacy, for as technology diversifies, so too will the definition of privacy.
In looking at these two interpretations, I believe there is a problematic difference between the motives of the government collecting data for surveillance and advertising agencies using data for the marketplace. Data collection for the marketplace is driven by what seems to be a fair economic motive to urge commerce towards a stable market while data collection for surveillance seems subjectively problematic. How does the government know who to watch? The only possible answer would seem to be that everyone is watched to some degree or another in an effort to survey all possible threats. Reports and internal audits verify these concerns. In the National Security Agency (NSA), unconstitutional behavior runs rampant. “The National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008” [10]. The Washington Post cites that most of these violations range from very considerable and purposeful infractions to unintended errors which involve the “unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by statute and executive order” [10].
In Figure 1 below, The Washington Post graphically represented their findings from the internal NSA audit. From this bar graph, it is alarming to see the number of incidents identified, error or not.

Figure 1: 2,776 NSA violations of rules or court orders for surveillance over one year [10].
screen shot 2013-11-24 at 12.14.52 am.png

However, the most frightening aspect might be that there is actually no way of fully knowing how many Americans and foreigners have had their information “improperly collected, stored or distributed by the NSA” and how many more times this will continue to occur in the name of security [10]. The article continues to identify the biggest violation of our privacy, the storage of incidental data. “The NSA uses the term ‘incidental’ when it sweeps up the records of an American while targeting a foreigner or a U.S. person who is believed to be involved in terrorism. Official guidelines for NSA personnel say that kind of incident, pervasive under current practices, ‘does not constitute a violation’” [10]. Where will the line be drawn? At what point will the storage of an individual’s data “constitute a violation”? These questions currently do not possess any answers; however, they will surely need answering in the near future.

Ethical Evaluation – Is Society Concerned for the Evolution of Privacy?

Upon defining privacy in the context of technology and examining the ways in which it is evolving through individuals’ interactions with the marketplace and government, it is wise to examine the consequences of such an evolution on society. As a society, should we be concerned for the evolution of privacy or is inevitable? A recent survey by The New York Times indicates a spread of opinions in response to this question. With nearly two hundred responses, several of the more notable responses can be found in Table 2 below.

Table 2 – The New York Times Survey Responses [11]

Survey question: What is more important: our privacy or national security?

Pro-Security Response

Neutral Response

Pro-Privacy Response

“I don’t think it is a bad idea for the government to monitor everyday internet activity because that is where people go to do their chats. Also that’s where people can get their supplies for […] terrorist attack.”

– Christian

“I honestly think privacy and our national security is important. You need privacy because nobody wants to be in the public eye all the time, and you need national security so the world can be somewhat a safe place.” - Asha

“I feel that the government is invading the American people’s privacy. People have the freedom of speech in America. – Cheyenne

“I do not think that there is a problem going through people’s things. If you have nothing to hide, what exactly is the issue? Searching through people’s things prevents things like 9/11 [...] Our National security is much more important than our own privacy.” - Rayna

“I don’t care how the government watches us. If you don’t have anything to hide why are you worrying about it?” – Sidney

“Privacy is something that can be personal to you or your family. I feel uncomfortable knowing that someone can be spying on my phone calls or knowing what I browse on the Internet.” – Cescily

While Table 2 provides a full range of responses, upon searching through the two hundred responses, it is clear that most people are actually neutral when it comes to issues that involve the tradeoff between privacy and security. Despite the public's generally neutral position on privacy, it is necessary to be concerned. Based on Sholtz’s sentiments presented earlier of a divided definition of privacy and an interview with Edward Snowden to be presented in the following paragraph, the necessity for concern will become concrete.

We must look to our democratic roots for a further explanation. Does using technology to ensure security go against our basic human rights? Does it go against our quality of life? Many would argue yes, but few would protest in light of random acts of terror such as the September 11th attacks or the Boston Marathon bombings. Edward Snowden brings a sophisticated position to this discussion during an interview with The Guardian on June 10th, 2013 in Hong Kong. He was asked about his thoughts on security efforts in the United States and whether they uphold our basic democratic rights? Snowden argued that security efforts implemented by the NSA are “outside of the democratic model […] When you are subverting the power of the government, that is a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy” [12]. As a government employee, Snowden’s inside look into the operations of the NSA brings a fresh perspective to our otherwise sheltered understanding of their actions. His arguments validate a cause for concern in the evolution of privacy.
Ethical Evaluation – Why Do We Need Privacy?

In light of the concern identified in the previous section “Should Society be Concerned for the Evolution of Privacy?” this paper will now work to build a basic understanding of the necessity for privacy, despite technological advancements. The importance and values that privacy provides to society have been debated among scientists and social philosophers for centuries. Dr. Hao Wang, a Professor of Law at Renmin University of China identifies the inherent values in privacy [13]. He argues that one of the most important reasons why privacy is valued is because it allows us to uphold a wide range of relationships with individuals of our choosing, which is a basic human necessity. In his book, Protecting Privacy in China, Dr. Hao Wang defends his position with the work of Alan Westin, a Professor Emeritus of Public Law and Government at Columbia University. Westin provides an imperative evaluation of privacy as he declares, “[P]rivacy serves four functions for individuals and groups in democratic nations, which include personal autonomy, emotional release, self-evaluation and limited and protected communication” [13]. According to Westin, privacy enables us to essentially be protected from the manipulation and domination of others while providing an opportunity for emotional release. Westin further demonstrates the importance of privacy as he states, “It ensure[s] every individual to exert their individuality on events and provides opportunities for sharing sensitive and intimate information.” Furthermore, privacy ensures the protection of individual interests, which include “freedom from censure and ridicule, promoting mental health, promoting autonomy, and promoting human relations” [13]. Thus it is evident that privacy is an essential element of basic human rights and a democratic government.

Shifting the conversation back to the interview with Edward Snowden this paper aims to now bridge together a complete understanding of the necessity for privacy. In Snowden’s interview, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian directly asks Snowden, “Why should people care about surveillance?” Snowden responds:
“Because even if you are not doing anything wrong you are being watched and recorded and the storage capability of these systems increases every year, consistently by orders of magnitude […] It’s getting to the point where you don’t have to have done anything wrong you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with and attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrong doer” [12].
It is with the words on value from Dr. Hao Wang, ideas of functionality in privacy from Alan Westin and the effects of growing computing power in technology from Edward Snowden that we are able to build a full understanding of the necessity for privacy. Edward Snowden’s interview enlightens us to the intrinsic values and functionality that technology puts at risk. With this analysis, this paper will now use the two definitions of privacy as identified by Sholtz and the four functions of privacy from Westin to scrutinize the aforementioned current event case studies.

  1. Bell Canada: This case of targeted advertising for the customers of Bell can be identified as an issue of marketplace privacy infringement. Bell proposes to sell their customer’s personal information and data to third party advertising companies for their relevant ads program. It should be noted that Bell has given their customers the chance to opt out; however, if they do not, they will automatically be included in the program. While it seems Bell is aiming for an ethical approach by giving their customers some freedom to choose, given the nature of cell phone contracts and waivers, it is not unlikely that this opt out program was buried in legal jargon which most probably overlooked. In this way, if Bell were to truly approach this program with an ethical mindset, they would need to contact all of their customers with a letter explicitly giving them information on the program with details on what data is collected and who would have access to it. They should then offer their customers the option to opt in as opposed to opt out. But what about looking at it from Westin’s privacy perspective? For instance, does the Bell case prevent Canadians from expressing themselves and from enjoying emotional release? It seems unlikely that targeted ads would create such inhibitions at this time, but in the future they might. The extent of data collected may become overwhelming enough to cause customers to restrain what they express in a text message, phone call or email message.

  1. Edward Snowden: The case of NSA surveillance incidents can be identified as an issue of citizens’ privacy infringement. With a surveillance program that targets Internet and phone communication of the general public, privacy and civil liberties are at stake. The actions of collecting data through Internet and phone communication are similar to those found in the Bell case; however, it is the motives which sincerely threaten our human rights. While the NSA may tout that it is for our safety from random acts of terror, the act of surveying the general public seems to threaten our basic democratic rights, specifically the 4th Amendment, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated” [14]. Again, looking at this case from Westin’s privacy perspective, does this case prevent Americans from expressing themselves and from enjoying emotional release? It seems likely as the extent of data collected seems random and overwhelming. As Snowden points out, even if we are not doing anything wrong, at some point in time we could wrongly fall under suspicion [12]. This instills a sense of fear in society hindering our ability to exert our individuality [13].

  1. Facebook: The case of Facebook deceiving its users for targeted advertising is certainly an issue of marketplace privacy infringement. Facebook failed to inform their users that by signing up for Facebook they automatically agreed to let Facebook use their personal information for advertising purposes. In this case, Facebook clearly broke privacy laws which the Federal Trade Commission forced them to correct. Westin would argue that Facebook unethically breached their users’ privacy and that communication and information was no longer protected. While Facebook sent a message to its users explaining the changes in their privacy policy, there was no “opt out” scenario as in the Bell case. The only way to “opt out” would be to disassociate oneself from Facebook all together and to delete one’s account. However, for those who do not choose this option, it is evident that one must continually monitor what content they post and even what content is posted about them. Facebook content is not just used for target advertising or as a social media site, but it is also used by employers who are looking to glean information about your age, habits and demeanor. Many people know that future employers use Facebook to pre-screen employees. “A survey commissioned by the online employment website CareerBuilder has found that 37 percent of hiring managers use social networking sites to research job applicants, with over 65 percent of that group using Facebook as their primary resource” [15]. Not only does this prevent users from expressing themselves and from enjoying certain emotional release, it causes users to hide specific attributes about themselves such as age, race or even religious affiliation. A social media outlet, whose mission seems quite simple, “[T]o give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” has developed into one of the most abused privacy-breaching tools [16].

Framing a Solution – Conclusion

Up until now this paper has been built upon an analysis of the trends in technology leading to rising privacy issues, examples of current events in the news, an understanding of the evolution of privacy and finally a discussion on the necessity for privacy. While this paper has focused on these aspects to identify the cost of privacy in technology advancements, one may ask, how do we frame a solution for the future? Or more importantly, as the capabilities of technology will undoubtedly continue to increase, where does the future of privacy fit into the equation? As Edward Snowden points out:

“You have to make a determination about what it is that is important to you. And if living unfreely, but comfortably, is something you are willing to accept, and I think many of us are, it’s human nature, you can get up every day and go to work [...] But if you realize that that is the world you helped create, and it’s going to get worse with the next generation who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression, you realize that you might be willing to accept any risk” [12].
With this in mind, it is apt to not sit comfortably and accept the consequences of “living unfreely” for privacy is at risk. Professional societies, such as the Association for Computing Machinery, need to continue to develop their resources and ethical guidelines while courses such as those taught in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT must ensure topics of privacy issues in technology are emphasized. More professional societies and universities must become advocators, educators and enforcers of best practices, policies and laws to ensure the longevity of our basic human right: privacy. The nature of politics is slow and bureaucratic, unlike the fast paced world of technology. This indicates an identifiable gap that lies in the policies and laws which give attention to privacy in the scope of technology. It is thus imperative that professional societies and universities uphold their roles as advocators, educators and enforcers in the fight for privacy.

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[2] K. C. Laudon, J. P. Laudon. (2011, April 1). Management Information Systems: Managing the Digital Firm (12th ed.) [Online]. Available: Management-Information-Systems-Managing-Digital/dp/0273754599
[3] C.E. Landwehr. (2010, January). Drawing the Line [Online]. Available: http:// www. computer. org/csdl/mags/sp/2010/01/msp2010010003-abs.html

[4] G. Roy. (2013, October 22). Privacy Commissioner to Investigate Bell's Data Collecting [Online]. Available:

[5] M. Hayden. (2013, July 19). Ex-CIA Chief: What Edward Snowden Did [Online].

[6] (2011, November 29). Facebook Settles Privacy Dispute with FTC [Online]. Available:
[7] (2013, September 12). Facebook Privacy Settlement Terms in Dispute [Online]. Available:
[8] S. Hilding. (2004, July 30). U.S. Department of Commerce Office of the Chief Information Officer: IT Privacy Policy [Online]. Available: ITPolicyandPrograms/IT_Privacy/DEV01_002682#P24_1237
[9] P. Sholtz. (2001, October 2). The Changing Definition of Privacy [Online]. Available:
[10] Barton Gellman. (2013, Aug. 15). NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year, audit finds [Online]. Available:
[11] M. Gonchar. (2013, September 17). What is More Important: Our Privacy or National Security? [Online]. Available: 09/17/what-is-more-important-our-privacy-or-national-security/?_r=0

[12] D. Ellsberg. (2013, June 10). Edward Snowden: Saving Us from the United States of America [Online]. Available:

[13] H. Wang. (2011). Protecting Privacy in China [Online]. Available: http://link.

[14] “All Amendments to the United States Constitution” [Online]. Avialable:
[15] R. Hunt. (2012, April. 18). 37 Percent Of Employers Use Facebook To Pre-Screen Applicants, New Study Says [Online]. Available:
[16] “About” [Online]. Facebook. Available:

1 University of Southern California. Viterbi School of Engineering. B.S. Industrial & Systems Engineering, 2014. Correspondence to Kelly N. Nastasi:

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