Professor advocates moral privacy rights

By SIRI TUMMALA | October 6, 2016

The Humanities Center hosted a discussion titled “A moral duty to protect your own privacy in the era of Big Data?” in Gilman Hall on Thursday, Sept. 29. The panel is the final event in a series of three seminars led by Anita LaFrance Allen, a Henry R. Silverman professor of law and professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Allen related an anecdote about a fifteen-year old girl buying pregnancy products from Target to illustrate how big data can impact privacy. Target marketed these products to her via coupons, causing her dad to find out about her pregnancy.

She used this example to stress the importance of privacy and the dangers posed by breaching it.

“The worries are unwanted personal disclosure, identity theft and discrimination in unemployment, health and financial services,” she said. “Typical consumers and Internet users do not understand the extent to which their activities generate data that is being collected, analyzed and put to use for various governmental and business purposes.”

Allen expanded on her position that individuals have a moral obligation to protect the privacy of others, as well as their own. According to Allen, her fellow colleagues in the field of law and privacy consider her argument unusual.

“The basic idea I was trying to convey is that we should not think of privacy like an optional good like a chocolate chip cookie,” she said. “If you give away your privacy, you are threatening something so fundamental to your well-being as perhaps being characterizable as demeaning or degrading yourself or treating yourself without self-care or self-respect.”

Given the heavy presence of social media today, Allen related privacy to the world of big data. She brought up the example of ex-congressman Anthony Weiner, who posted lewd photos of himself on Twitter.

“It suggests a certain carelessness about his privacy. It was not prudent,” Allen said. “I am not saying you should never go on Instagram, but it does mean that there should be some mindfulness and limits on what you post, when you post, how much you post and how many times you use your credit card. Not to say absolutely everything must be kept behind closed doors, nor am I denying that there are positive values of sharing.”

Moreover, Allen addressed the idea of anonymity that many big data analysts raise in response to allegations that big data hinders privacy.

“One of the concerns of big data is anonymity because so much of the defense of big data relies on the notion of collecting data and anonymizing data,” she said. “They are sharing health records but with anonymous faces. It gets anonymized and the computers just crunch habits but not the names.”

Allen argues that the anonymous big data does not protect privacy.

“Harvard Professor, Latanya Sweeney, did some interesting research to show that it is really easy for smart people to re-identify people with allegedly anonymized data,” she said.

After her lecture, she opened up the floor for an informal discussion.

In response to a question about the moral obligation individuals have to keep their information private, Allen elaborated on her thesis.

“I do believe in some contexts that we do have an obligation to keep some information private, but I am not arguing that we never have an obligation or are not allowed to do the opposite,” she said.

Another participant brought up the issue of servers on computers which register consumer’s preferences and how this affects people’s Internet searches. He asked about the interlinkage of big data from one electronic device to another.

“I think there is a lot about us big data will not be able to piece together. Big data does not know everything,” Allen said.

The audience consisted primarily of graduate students and professors at Hopkins. Many of them had attended Allen’s previous two lectures, which touched on topics other than privacy in relation to big data.

Michael McCreary, a first-year graduate student in the Humanities Center, who attended all three lectures in the series, explained that he was intrigued by this topic and found the seminar to be instructive and engaging.

“I thought today’s lecture was another interesting session about how big data and the changing landscape of technology is impacting our discussions of privacy and how we think about privacy,” McCreary said.

Omid Mehrgan, a fifth-year graduate student in the Humanities Center, echoed these sentiments, speaking about the multidimensionality of the seminar discussion.

“It was a talk both legally and philosophically minded and a question of privacy was posed in relation to certain empirical, political, or other cases,” Mehrgan said.

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