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Can I Get Some Privacy?

Publication Date: 
March 11, 2013
Stanford Magazine
Brian Eule

In the most recent edition of Stanford Magazine, several scholars from the Center for Internet and Society discuss data privacy and the lack of control around it.  

Assuming you possess a cell phone and a computer and a credit card, the following scenario, or something like it, might sound familiar.

Your morning begins with coffee and a bagel and the morning paper, perhaps read on a laptop. You click on stories about Egyptian unrest, the firearms industry and Downton Abbey. Two other websites are open on your desktop. One of them shows your Facebook account. You notice that you've been "tagged" in a photo from last week's poker game, in a pose that suggests one too many beers. Meanwhile, a friend has sent you a link to an article in the Onion that zestfully parodies a well-known senator. You "like" it.


"I don't think that people understand all the information that's out there about them," says Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society. "People might not think that you can put it all together, but they're wrong. It's increasingly easy to figure out who people are. There is a treasure trove of information out there that is available."


At an extreme, piecing together information that exists about each of us can be used for identity theft. But that's rare in comparison to more typical concerns regarding the lack of control over who sees what personal information, how they use it and what decisions they base on it. Aleecia M. McDonald, director of privacy at the CIS, notes that banks might charge a higher mortgage rate for a customer whose friends on Facebook had negative credit events. Or, web merchants might adjust the price of products based on a customer's ZIP code. Much of the concern, McDonald notes, resides in the uncertainty over how all of the information will eventually be employed.

It's not just the things they disclose that people find troubling; "it's also this data leakage about what they do online and what they're interested in, their intellectual history and then also their friends," McDonald says. "They don't know where the data is going, they don't know how it's used, and they don't know what happens 10, 20, 40, 50 years from now."


Privacy concerns may vary by age. McDonald speculates that younger generations might be most vigilant about protecting their privacy from their parents. The middle generation might be most concerned with what employers or health care providers might learn about them. Regardless of age, much of the issue centers around control, or lack of it.

"The question, on some level, is 'Whose data is it?' " McDonald says.


Unlike some countries that have codified a comprehensive right to privacy, Jennifer Granick notes, the United States has no universal privacy law. Instead, it relies on a patchwork of regulations and the Fourth Amendment, which states: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."


"I think the next couple of years will be formative for the next decade after," CIS's McDonald says. But forecasts about how business interests and privacy concerns ultimately will be reconciled are cloudy at best. And the proverbial slippery slope is getting more treacherous all the time.

"I would expect that targeting advertising is just the beginning of what could be done with this data," McDonald says. She worries "that we will look back later on and go, 'remember when it was so simple? It was only advertising.'"