2.12 Online Privacy

Personal information is not merely a person's name, address and Social Security number, but his or her shopping habits, driving record, medical diagnoses, work history, credit score, political affiliation, vacations, social contacts, educational record and more. The right to privacy refers to control over this personal data: who can acquire, keep, access and process this information.

Privacy is an inherent human right, namely to be free of surveillance from other individuals, organizations and/or the state.

To the disquiet of many {1} {15} {20} {21} {22} {26} {27} {49}, privacy is under increased threat today, with the Internet greatly facilitating the collection, storage and analysis of personal data. {51} {52} {53} {54} {58} {71} Realists of the Mortengau school will see this as the usual devil's bargain, the price paid by companies and individuals for wider access to information.

1. Federal, state and local governments collect personal information in pursuance of their duties, and that information is accessible to law enforcement agencies through several pieces of legislation: Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, the USA Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act, in many instances without judicial oversight. {2} {4} {5} {25} {64} Similar information is protected in Europe under more stringent Data Protection Acts, but can be accessed by tax and law enforcement officers and/or for reasons of 'state security'. {3} {6}

2. Similar information, often very detailed, noting interests, social preferences and purchase histories is routinely collected by:

a. Shopping carts: merchant must keep this information safe, but may use it for marketing purposes (as does Amazon in making book suggestions) or sell it on to third parties.
b. Search engines: government requests that browsing information be stored by ISPs and made available to courts and law enforcement agencies has met with mixed success. {7} {53} {54}
c. Spyware: inadvertently downloaded, such programs can collect passwords, security codes, browsing histories, etc.
d. Social media: personal data can be sold or made available to third parties, {8} {23} usually advertisers but potentially to criminal elements.
e. Cookies and supercookies that track and profile Internet users. Some can be avoided by setting the browser security controls higher, but five new types evade such controls and are difficult to remove. {9}
f. Web bugs that track advertising campaigns. {52}
g. Advertising networks that track individuals across the Internet (e.g. Clickstream) can sell that information to advertisers. {10}
h Service suppliers like Google collect information, either for their own use or to be sold for marketing purposes.
i. Forms: email addresses and profiles collected to receive some report or benefit can be sold on, or linked to advertising networks.
j. Deep Packet Inspection: networking technology that ISPs install to monitor customers' data {11} {12}: used to target advertising and terrorist activity. {25} {54}
k. Server traffic logs: routinely saved by ISPs and therefore available for analysis: who visited what pages when, etc.
l. Internet Payment Service Providers: detailed customer information (often including bank accounts) becomes available to third parties if security is breached (or some parts sold on).
m. Trusted computing environments: restrict viewing of sensitive material but also store user information for identification purposes. {13}.
n. Email addressing harvesting software (e.g. Atomic Email Hunter) that collects email addresses, owner's names and interests for subsequent email marketing. {14}
o. Companies providing a background check on individuals (e.g. PeopleSearch and WhoWhere) {16}

Such information becomes more valuable when combined. A travel company offering snorkeling holidays in Thailand would be interested in subscribers to a diving magazine who also browsed web pages on holidays in the country. The security services would be failing in their duties if they did not look more closely at someone in email correspondence with animal liberation groups who started researching bomb-making equipment on the Internet.

Privacy Legislation

Broadly speaking, privacy is enshrined by legislation in Europe, but left for individuals to sue for violations in the USA. {5} Nonetheless, most countries have extensive legislation in place. {17} {18} {19} {24} {41} {42}


Felony: to use a computer to commit fraud, to maliciously access a computer without authorization, and to damage, copy, or remove files.
Misdemeanor: to use a computer to examine private files without authorization.

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA): 1986

Felony: unauthorized access to a Federal computer system with the intent to steal or commit fraud or inflict malicious damage.
Misdemeanor: to traffic in passwords.

Electronic Communications Privacy Act: 1986

Electronic communications are private. Unauthorized access to and disclosure of private communications is unlawful.

Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) : 1994

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies can conduct electronic surveillance.

Freedom of Information Act: 1996

Guaranteed access to data held by the state. Nine exemptions apply, including state security, commercially sensitive information, medical records, etc.

Communications Decency Act (CDA): 1996 (Overturned in 1997)

Felony: to transmit obscene or offensive material over the Internet.

Web Copyright Law: 1997

Infringement of copyright-protected material valued at least $1000 can be prosecuted, even if there is no profit from the crime. Penalties are heavy.

Child Online Protection Act (COPA): 1998

Federal crime: to transmit material that is harmful to children over the Internet for commercial purposes.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act: 1998

New rules, safeguards and penalties for downloading, sharing, and viewing copyrighted material online.

Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act: 1999

Authorized widespread sharing of personal information by financial institutions such as banks, insurers, and investment companies.

Safety and Freedom through Encryption (SAFE) Act: 2000

Relaxed US export controls on encryption.

Patriot Act: 2001

Drastically increased federal police investigatory powers, including the right to intercept email and track Internet usage.

Homeland Security Act: 2002

Centralized federal security functions to meet post-cold war threats and challenges.

Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act: 2004

Promoted a culture of information sharing among intelligence agencies and federal departments. Set up a five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to protect privacy and civil liberties.

Internet Spy Act: 2011

ISPs must retain data on customer use for twelve months.

Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act 2012

Cyber threat information can be shared between the U.S. government departments and security companies.


Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights

Most European countries adhere to the above which declares:

Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. Exceptions apply: for reasons of: national security, public safety, crime, disorder, public health, morals, threatened rights and freedoms of others.

Individual countries retain their own legislation, however: France has a law recognizing the right to privacy, but the UK does not.

Freedom of Information Acts

Guaranteed access to data held by the state. Passed by most countries, but data can be held back for state security reasons or simply delayed by 'staff shortages'.

Does Privacy Matter?

For many of today's Internet citizens, privacy does not matter. They take the view of a 2008 NYT article {30} that privacy is dead, which is a 'good thing' because everyone can now spy on everyone else and stop 'bad guys'. People (especially people in 'terrorist' countries) need to get accustomed to having their activities recorded and judged by concerned fellow citizens. {31}

Authorities indeed often argue for increased surveillance by saying 'if you've done nothing wrong, then you've got nothing to worry about.'

On practical grounds (i.e. leaving aside a country's Constitution, {63} the ethical issues and experience of life in a police state), the counter-arguments are:

1. Without some privacy, individuals and companies cannot maintain competitive advantage, which negates the capitalist system. {47} {66} {70}
2. Subsequent anonymity is needed by whistle blowers and crime witnesses if they are not to face uncertain futures, and be less willing to testify. {41} {42}
3. Democracy is endangered if citizens cannot privately discuss matters of common concern. {51} {52} {53} Surveillance can pass into harassment, and then into the suppression of inconvenient views or evidence.
In particular:
a. Once collected, {48} {49} {50} {51} {52} {53} {54} information is not easily removed. No security system is entirely safe, and information becomes accessible to private interest groups, foreign powers or rogue elements of government. {44}
b. Diverse opinions, some unwelcome to the state {36 {37} {38}, are a feature of free societies, and free societies are generally the more prosperous. {56}{62}
c. The 'nothing to fear' argument operates largely in one direction, and governments often seem more concerned to 'shoot the messenger' than correct the injustices exposed. {43} {65} The extent of illegal spying by western governments on their own citizens is now being disclosed, with the whistleblower being denounced as a 'traitor' by mainstream media channels ostensibly charged with 'speaking truth to power'. {69} Moreover, even as illegal surveillance is being extended, more documents (tens of millions yearly) are being witheld from citizens whom governments claim to answer to. {76}
d. Security matters are indeed not properly balanced by accountability to citizens — who are supposedly served by government officials, pay their salaries {38} and are seen abroad as supporting their policies. {55} {38} That governments do routinely misbehave and cover up while prosecuting citizens for lessor crimes {32} {33} {34} {35} {36} {37} argues double standards, {68} and fuels attitudes that range from distrust to conspiracy theories. {45} {46} {58-61} Citizens become disaffected with government, which is then deprived of the trust, support and cooperation it needs to function effectively.
e. US data collection passes into commercial and industrial espionage, {74} which is damaging the reputation and prospects of all US IT companies. {69} {73}
f. Data can and is used to blackmail individuals at all levels of government, military and corporate life. {72}
g. NSA activities go beyond surveillance: bank accounts, commercially sensitive information, computers, networks and software can be taken over and altered by the intelligence services without judicial oversight, or indeed legal disclosure for one year. {75}

Online Privacy Protection

Beyond not providing more information than specifically required, privacy is improved by:

1. Appointing a chief privacy officer to stay abreast of legislation and ensure the company meets requirements.
2. Surfing anonymously through systems like anonymizer, etc.
3. Encrypting all sensitive material with disk encryption software.
4. Blocking and removing spyware with superantispyware, etc.
5. Securing emails with hushmail, PGP, etc.
6. Erasing data on discarded hard disks with programs like secure erase, etc.
7. Removing cookies with browser controls and/or with programs like ccleaner, etc.
8. Blocking pop-ups with browser controls or software.
9. Using software provided by companies not implicated in government surveillance, if such exist. {67}
10. Moving to open-source, self-modified software.
11. Avoiding cloud storage of sensitive information, particularly when servers are located in Britain or America.
12. Keep up to date with the more investigative and independent journalism on NSA and GCHQ. {75}


1. What are the main threats to personal privacy on the Internet, and how serious are they?
2. Outline the legislation relating to online privacy in the USA.
3. How does Europe generally treat online privacy?
4. Suggest practical measures to improve online privacy.
5. Do you think online privacy is an an important matter? Give the arguments for and against.

Sources and Further Reading

1. Online trust and perceived utility for consumers of web privacy statements by Mark Gazaleh. SkyDrive. July 2010.
2. News You Need To Know About Information Security Laws. About.Com. Short but useful listing of news items.
3. Security legislation. Watson Hall. Links to acts applying to UK, Europe and to some extent the USA.
4. Internet Privacy. Wikipedia. Extensive and well-researched article. See Reference 49.
5. 'La difference' is stark in EU, US privacy laws by Bob Sullivan. Privacy Lost. Pros and cons of European approaches.
6. Data Protection Act 1998. UK Government. Provisions of the law: other European countries have similar exemptions.
7. DOJ Renews Push For Mandatory ISP Data Retention by Karl Bode. Broadband reports. January 2011.
8. How Online Tracking Companies Know Most of What You Do Online (and What Social Networks Are Doing to Help Them) by Peter Eckersley. Electronic Foundation Frontier. September 2009.
9. New Cookie Technologies: Harder to See and Remove, Widely Used to Track You by Seth Schoen. Electronic Foundation Frontier. September 2009.
10. Clickstream Raises Questions About Online Privacy by 'Jeff'. Digital Business Solutions Blog. February 2010.
11. The Singular Challenges of ISP use of Deep Packet Inspection by Alissa Cooper. DeepPacketInspection. Various short articles and links.
12. NCPS under attack over BT and Phorm's covert online monitoring by Josh Halliday. Guardian. April 2011.
13. Trusted Computing Group. Non-profit organization promoting various security solutions.
14. Why is email address harvesting a bad idea? Bt©B. June 2007. Illegal in many countries.
15. Privacy. Daily news, information, and initiatives on privacy issues.
16. Internet Marketing Ethics and Web Ethical Issues: Importance of Ethics on The Internet. PWebs. 2011. Promotional but useful.
17. Computer Ethics, Laws, Privacy Issues. George Mason University. Listing of papers and legal provisions by Virginia Montecino. November 2009.
18. Internet Privacy Law by Timothy. Walton. NetAtty. 2000. Provisions, citations and cases to 2000.
19. Selected State Laws Related to Internet Privacy. National Conference of State Legislatures. March 2011.
20. Epiq. Email and online newsletter on civil liberties in the information age.
21. Fact Sheet 18: Online Privacy: Using the Internet Safely. Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. August 2011.
22. Privacy International. A European perspective and beyond.
23. How Privacy Vanishes Online by Steve Lohr. NYT. March 2010.
24. Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change. FTC. December 2010.
25. Internet Privacy. Encyclopedia of Everyday Law. Useful summary, with relevant organizations.
26. Electronic Foundation Frontier. EFF. Defends free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights.
27. Web Tracking and Online Privacy. American Civil Liberties Union. March 2011. News and articles.
28. E-Scams and Warnings. FBI. Horror stories and advice.
29. Privacy and Security. Federal Trade Commission. Detailed advice.
30. Fight Terror With YouTube by Danial Kimmage. NYT. June 2008
31. Does Privacy Matter? by Joshua Allen. Channel 9. July 2008.
32. The Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World by Mark Curtis. Vintage. 2003.
33. Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad by Marnia Lazreg. Princeton Univ. Press. December 2007.
34. The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel's Deadly 1967 Assault on a US Spy Ship by James Scott. Simon & Schuster. July 2010.
35. Operation Northwoods: US Planned Fake Terror Attack on Citizens to Create Support for Cuban War. What Really Happened. From Body of Secrets by James Bamford. Doubleday 2001.
36. Press freedom in Russia remains strongly suppressed — survey. Rianovosti. April 2004.
37. China Human Rights. Amnesty International. Articles and stories as they break.
38. Surveillance and Democracy by Kevin D. Haggerty and Minas Samatas (Eds.) Routledge-Cavendish. July 2010.
39. Legal aspects of computing. Wikipedia.
40. Privacy. USLegal. Overview, with links to specifics.
41. List of Whistleblowers. Wikipedia. Listing with outcomes, many favorable.
42. Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power by C. Fred Alford. Cornell Univ. Press. February 2002.
43. 10 arguments for and against WikiLeaks by Jaime Henriquez. TechRepublic. April 2011.
44. Catastrophic Failure: UK Loses Records of 25 Million Citizens by Jason Mick. DailyTech. November 2007.
45. Prison Planet. Alex Jones' crusade against government control.
46. Britain's 9-11 Cover-Up: What Will Become of Us? Kevin Boyle Blogspot. May 2011.
47. Capitalist Magazine. Many articles arguing for a more 'hands off' approach by government.
48. House Committee Approves US Internet Spy Bill: This Week in Online Tyranny by Curt Hopkins. ReadWriteWeb. August 2011.
49. Spying on First Amendment Activity — State-by-State. American Civil Liberties Union. September 2011.
50. Bugger Off: Spying Online Is Perilous and Unnecessary. Review of Susan Landau's Surveillance or Security? The Risks Posed by New Wiretapping Technologies by Evgeny Morozov. Boston Review. September / October 2011.
51. Tracking File Found in iPhones by Nick Bilton. NYT. April 2011.
52. Web Bugs Can Make Your Privacy Sick by Jim Rapoza. eWeek. June 2009.
53. Every Breath You Take, Every Move You Make — 14 New Ways That the Government Is Watching You. Lew Rockwell. November 2011.

54. Watching Over You: The Perils of Deep Packet Inspection by Antoine Champagne. Counter Punch. March 2012.
55. Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire by Chalmers Johnson. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt. 2004.
56. Statistics on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Correlations. Filip Spagnoli's blog. 2008.
57. Bill Summary & Status 112th Congress (2011 - 2012) H.R.3523. Library of Congress. May 2012.
58. NSA slides explain the PRISM data-collection program. Washington Post. June 2013.
59. Where did the Towers Go? by Judy Wood. The New Investigation, 2010. A detailed inventory of 9/11 destruction that goes beyond the contrary arguments presented in the Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy site to show the official account is false, indeed impossible.
60. 9/11 Truth Movement. 9/11Truth.org. Controlled explosion theories: regarded by Wood's supporters as a government-sanctioned 'misinformation' site.
61. The Terror Conspiracy Revisited by Jim Marrs. Disinformation Books, 2011. One of several books presenting unpalatable but persuasive evidence that 9/11 was an 'inside job'. (Students should note that
departures from the official 9/11 line are often taboo in college studies, and may be heavily penalized. Check first with course tutors.)
62. Why Societies Need Dissent (Oliver Wendell Holmes Lectures) by Cass R. Sunstein. Harvard University Press, 2005.
63. NSA Spying and the Fourth Amendment Snowden’s Constitution, Obama’s Constitution, and Criminal Law by Rob Hager. Counterpunch. June, 2013.
64. Government Spying: Why You Can't 'Just Trust Us' Read more: Government Spying: Why You Can't 'Just Trust Us' by Marcey Wheeler. The Nation. June, 2013.
65. Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin. Little, Brown and Co., 2011.
66. Eavesdropping on the Planet, Whistleblowers and Edward Snowden by William Blum. Global Research. June, 2013.
67. Opt out of PRISM, the NSA’s global data surveillance program. Prism-Break. July, 2013. A good listing of alternatives.
68. The Breakdown of The Rule of Law: America’s Descent Into Authoritarianism by Devon DB. Global Research. July, 2013.
69. NSA revelations over the last month. GCSideBlog. Guardian corresponent's listing. July 2013.
70. NSA Spying Directly Harms Internet Companies, Silicon Valley, California … And the Entire U.S. Economy. Washington's Blog. August 2013.
71 With friends like these . . .by Tom Hodgkinson. Guardian. January 2008. CIA investment in PayPal and Facebook.
72. NSA Whistleblower: NSA Spying On – and Blackmailing – Top Government Officials and Military Officers. WashingtonsBlog. October 2013.
73. NSA Spying Directly Harms Internet Companies, Silicon Valley, California … And the Entire U.S. Economy. WashingtonsBlog. July 2013.
74. Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage Against Non-Profit Organisations by Gary Ruskin. Corporate Policy. November, 2013.
75, Inside TAO: Documents Reveal Top NSA Hacking Unit by Spiegal Staff. Der Spiegal. December, 2013.
76. Tomgram: Engelhardt, The National Security Complex and You by Tom Engelhardt. TomDespatch. July, 2012.