Skip to main content

Privacy worries go far beyond e-mails

By Denise Anthony, Special to CNN
updated 1:33 PM EST, Fri December 21, 2012
Denise Anthony says privacy is important in e-mail and social networks like Facebook, but also in what we buy and visit online.
Denise Anthony says privacy is important in e-mail and social networks like Facebook, but also in what we buy and visit online.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Denise Anthony: Facebook's new protections, enhancement of e-mail privacy act good news
  • Anthony: But we need to protect privacy of purchases, websites we visit, personal data
  • The idea privacy is something an individual can own and sell is bad strategy, she says
  • Anthony: Privacy can't be regulated alone; it's a social, community bond

Editor's note: Denise Anthony is an associate professor of sociology and research director of the Institute for Security, Technology and Society at Dartmouth University. She is a Public Voices fellow at the Op-Ed Project.

(CNN) -- Facebook recently announced new privacy controls that enable users not only to limit how their information is shared, but also to better understand how that information is exposed to others. Increased transparency and strong, simple privacy controls like these are practices more companies should embrace.

Facebook's changes follow a recent move by a Senate panel to approve a bill that would require law enforcement to get a warrant before reading private e-mail. This proposed change to the outdated 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act is good news -- and not just for the likes of Gen. David Petraeus, who would rather their compromising situations remain private.

Both actions are important steps toward improving privacy protections online, but we have a long way to go -- because it's not only e-mails and social networks we might want to keep private. What about our purchases, the websites we visit, or our personal details?

Denise Anthony
Denise Anthony
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Consider my own recent experience. A friend reached out to me, concerned over the profile he had seen of me on a dating website. I was listed as a widow and, as he and I both knew, my husband is still very much alive. And married.

To me.

To my horror, someone had set up a dating profile for me, using information easily gleaned from the Web: my name, my photo, the university where I teach, the number of my children. All of it was accurate except two claims: I was a widow and that I was "looking for a relationship.''

How much do Google, Facebook profit from your data?

Many privacy advocates and information security experts react to examples like mine with calls for more consumer control of information. If we treated personal information like private property akin to a home or car, the argument goes, then I would have the power to decide when and to whom to "sell" or license my information, and of course would have a case against the dating website for "stealing" it.

But responding to the ever-expanding market in private information by participating in its sale seems to only legitimatize and promote, not limit, the practice. More important, viewing privacy as an individual problem to be fixed by individual property rights will not lower our risks because it fails to take into account the social value of privacy.

New Facebook privacy changes
Getting caught on Google maps
Petraeus probe raises privacy concerns

One obvious social value is in protecting personal details -- name, occupation, marital status. The problem with the dating site profile wasn't that I didn't get paid for my information. It's that its misrepresentations could have had serious consequences for my personal life and my reputation.

I have a strong interest in ensuring reported facts about me are correct: We all do. Much of modern social and economic life would be impossible without reliance on such facts.

Privacy enhances social relationships, both private and contractual. I share information with my doctor not simply because I value her services and expect confidentiality, but because I trust her and value our relationship. In health care, patients must be willing to disclose personal and intimate information to clinicians.

If someone exposed to HIV or bird flu were not willing to tell a doctor because of privacy concerns, not only would his or her health suffer, but the health of all would be endangered.

Probably the most important social value related to privacy is its role in civic engagement, which of course includes voting, but also the ability to interact freely without surveillance. Although we worry mostly about government agents snooping on us, corporate and third-party surveillance of online communications, relationships and activities has increased significantly in the past decade.

Most forces in the marketplace encourage companies to exploit rather than protect consumers' private information. Businesses lack information accountability and fair information practice policies are weak. Online tracking of purchases, social networks, and locations for commercial gain could end up harming civic engagement in the same way that we worry government surveillance will do.

Opinion: Despite Facebook, privacy is far from dead

Because privacy is social, it is not a property of individuals. My "individual privacy" is actually created, and thus protected, by people I know, and my doctor, my bank, my telephone line, my voting booth, my library card. Privacy depends on social norms, professional ethics, organizational policies, legal rules and regulations and technical standards.

No one of these mechanisms -- technology, norms or laws -- determines or fully protects privacy, but in concert they do. To argue that the best way to bolster privacy is to make it an individual responsibility contradicts its actual social nature.

Another drawback: People might not be very good at managing their privacy by themselves. In the rush to adopt a new device or try a new application, many don't fully consider, or are even aware of, tradeoffs they might be making when they provide a lot of personal details.

New Facebook policies and the proposed strengthening of the electronic privacy act are important steps, but until we follow privacy-by-design technology, strengthen fair information practices, and encourage policies that recognize the social nature of privacy, our online world will continue to lack the mechanisms we need to promote and protect personal privacy.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Denise Anthony.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT