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Privacy and Technology

Privacy is also a complicated technology policy issue.  Privacy concerns grew most rapidly with the advent of computing capabilities in the 1960s.  In fact, throughout history new privacy concerns have emerged with nearly every development of potential surveillance techniques.  The famous definition of privacy as the right 'to be let alone' emerged with the development of the camera and its use by tabloid media in the late 19th century.1  Later concerns emerged as governments began listening to private communications over telegraph and telephone lines.

The development of advanced databases and data analysis techniques such as data-mining have also been accompanied by parallel concerns about privacy.  With the advent of computing and database technologies in the 1960s and 1970s, governments around the world began developing informational privacy laws to protect against abuse.  Now the concern focuses on data-mining, where vast amounts of personal information are collected from a variety of sources and then subjected to algorithms to predict behaviours such as one's propensity to go into irrecoverable debt, or become a terrorist.  Databases and data-mining both pose serious threats to the ability of individuals to control the use of information about them.  Combined with electronic payments, mobile telephony, and internet usage, every action in our lives today results in a transaction log held by financial companies, the telecommunications industry, tax agencies, and shops, amongst many others.

On many occasions, however, technology also enhances privacy and security..  Complex personal information management systems can be developed using technologies to ensure that privacy is protected, and possibly even enhanced as we continue to move into a more technology-laden world.  We may now secure our commercial transactions and communications using cryptography in ways previously unimaginable, giving powers of privacy protection to the individual that were once reserved only to the state.  We may devise means of transacting with companies and governments in ways that minimise the flow of sensitive information, increasing citizen and consumer confidence, while reducing the risk of security breaches and fraud.  But as we have encountered in Asia, awareness of these technologies is quite low, and in some cases they are prohibited (e.g. India continues to restrict the use of cryptography).


  • 1. "The Right to Privacy", Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, Harvard Law Review, Vol. IV, December 15, 1890 No. 5.