The aim of this article is to assess the impact of technology on the private lives of people. It is approached from a socio-ethical perspective with specific emphasis on the implication for the information profession. The issues discussed are the concept privacy, he influence of technology on the processing of personal and private information, the relevance of this influence for the information profession, and proposed solutions to these ethical issues for the information profession.
THE CONCEPT OF PRIVACY
Definition of Privacy
Privacy can be defined as an individual condition of life characterized by exclusion from publicity. The concept follows from the right to be left alone. Shank states that such a perception of privacy set the course for passing of privacy laws in the United States for the ninety years that followed. As such privacy could be regarded as a natural right which provides the foundation for the legal right. The right to privacy is therefore protected under private law.
Different Categories of Private Information
Private communications. This category of privacy concerns all forms of personal communication which a person wishes to keep private. The information exchanged during a reference interview between the user and the information professional can be seen as an example.
The Expressed Will to Privacy
The following important aspect of privacy is the desire for privacy (by means of an expressed will) since this desire is important for the delimitation of privacy. In short, the desire for privacy implies that privacy will only be at issue in cases where there is a clear expression of a desire for privacy. For example, a personal conversation between two persons will be regarded as private as long as there is an expressed will to keep it private.
The Relationship Between Privacy and Confidentiality (Secrecy)
It is also important to distinguish between privacy and confidentiality/secrecy. The confidential treatment of information is not only applicable to the above-mentioned four categories of private and personal information – it may refer to any category of information, such as, inter alia, trade secrets.
THE INFLUENCE OF TECHNOLOGY ON THE PROCESSING OF PERSONAL AND PRIVATE INFORMATION
Definition of Information Technology
Before the influence of the use of technology in the processing of personal and private information can be dealt with, it is important to briefly pay attention to the concept technology. For the purpose of this paper the definition of Van Brakel (1989, p. 240) will be used, namely: the gathering, organizing, storage and distribution of information in various formats by means of computer and telecommunications techniques based on micro-electronics.
THE RELEVANCE FOR THE INFORMATION PROFESSIONAL
The above-mentioned has implications for the information professional on at least three levels. Firstly, the information professional works with all four categories of personal and private information. Secondly, increasing use is made of technology in the processing thereof. Lastly, a new profession is emerging in the infopreneur whose main line of business may be the buying and selling of person-related and other private information.
Applicable Ethical Norms
Applicable ethical norms which can act as guidelines as well as instruments of measurement must be formulated to address these ethical issues. The following norms can be distinguished: truth, freedom and human rights. They will be discussed briefly.
Ethical Guidelines for the Information Professional
Based on these norms, practical guidelines for the information professional can be formulated. Before the formulation of these guidelines, two fundamental aspects must be taken into consideration, namely the recognition of a persons’ autonomy and freedom as well as the fact that the legal guidelines on privacy do not offer a complete framework for the ethical actions of the information professional with regard to the handling of personal and private information.