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Summaries of Chapters 1, 2, and 3: Helen Nissenbaum “Privacy In Context”

Chapter 1: “Keeping Track and Watching over Us”


-Advances in digital media have created a dramatic rise in technically mediated monitoring.

-There is also a marked shift in the nature of such technology-mediated monitoring and tracking—automated, undiscriminating, and accommodating new subjects, monitors, and motives.

-‘Monitoring’ and ‘tracking’ are used rather than ‘surveillance’. Nissenbaum seeks to describe technology-based systems and practises, rather than politicising or theorising about the uses to which they are put.

-CCTV (closed circuit television) monitoring systems, sound recording, wiretapping, and computerised tracking systems are used to monitor.

-Roger Clarke (1988) ‘dataveillance’: interactions and transactions can be monitored and tracked via the exchange, extraction, or capture of information.

-GPS (global positioning systems), allows for more accurate pinpointing of people.

-Online monitoring: much more aggressive and precise as compared with unstructured three-dimensional physical space.

-RFID (radio frequency identification) technology: its means of identifying and tracking was recognised as far back as WWII (enemy planes from friendly ones).

-Passive RFID: transponder tags with no power source of their own are activated by power broadcast to them by transceivers, emitting radio signals back to the transceiver. The information emitted is the tag’s own identification, usually linked to a database via the transceiver.

-Active RFID: transponder tags with their own internal power source. They can be read across greater distances than passive tags; greater read/write storage capacity.

-RFID is also found in student ID cards, automobile keys, wristbands for newborns. The technology is also being considered for consumer-based uses (tracking types of goods purchased, etc.).


Chapter 2: “Knowing Us Better than We Know Ourselves: Massive and Deep Databases”


Major achievements of information science and technology


1. Computerised databases, scientific development, surges in processing power, and cheap computer memory, have enabled that anything about anyone can be digitised, stored indefinitely, and readily retrieved.

2. Rapid strides in science and engineering (WWW, wireless networking, etc.), have allowed for large quantities of information to be moved around reliably and efficiently at lightening speed.

3. Scientific and technological growth in data analysis due to rapid, ongoing developments in information science, information management, theoretical computer science, mathematical and statistical analysis, cryptography, and artificial intelligence. Information can be more easily transformed into useful knowledge.


Four Pivotal Transformations


1. Democratisation of Database Technologies:

-Democratisation is to mean an expansion of access to a broad and diverse community of individual and institutional learners.  

-Code of Fair Information Practices (1973): it articulates five fundamental principles of record-keeping that have shaped privacy policy making throughout the world.

-The confluence of technology with a particular power configuration has broken down with the democratisation of access to automated record-keeping and related technologies.

2. Information Mobility:

-Easy and inexpensive storage, standardised database formats, and maturation of the networked information infrastructure, has created unprecedented efficiency for the ways in which information is moved around.

-The grapevine is thorough, scientific, and precise; records of whom we are and what we have done follow us and sometimes precede us.


3. Information Aggregation:


-It is facilitated by the first two transformations: database democratisation and information mobility.

-Aggregated databases: assemblages of a number of distinct databases.

-Breadth and depth: the number of data subjects or the numbers of attributed fields, respectively.

-WWW is an example of a huge virtual warehouse of information that is drawn from multiple sources.


4. Information from Data, Knowledge from Information:

-This fourth transformation is an unbounded confidence placed in the potential of information processes and analysis to solve deep and urgent social problems.

-Problems that may be solved in the acquisition of knowledge about others (attributes, past actions), as a means of understanding their predispositions and predict future actions.

-One general worry is that the analysis of aggregated data sets generates information about people beyond what is given in the individual data sets. Circumstances, understandings, or even policies that surround them individually may not apply to them when information is in an aggregated form.

-KDD (knowledge discovery in data) techniques search for emergent relationships among attributes in data sets.


5. Omnibus Information Providers:

-Also sometimes called online data vendors, information brokers, or information services. Information is their enterprise, their currency, and their business model.

-Omnibus providers sometimes respond to existing needs but at other times function as consumer product developers, creating information products that they market mostly to institutions but sometimes to individuals as well.

-Examples of major omnibus providers: Acxiom Corporation, ChoicePoint, Inc., and First Advantage Corporation.  


Chapter 3: “Capacity to Spread and Find Everything, Everywhere”


-Google Maps: Street View is an example of the capacity to spread and find everything, everywhere. As a result, it has created anxiety as it has the capacity to transform the mundane into moral indignation (think shots of naked people).


1. Public Records Online:

-Public records are government records about individuals that are open to public inspection without restriction.

-1966 Freedom of Information Act, defines parameters for creating open access by individuals and nongovernmental organisations to records of all governmental activity, not only records of personal information.

-1974 Privacy Act, constrains disclosure of personal records held by agencies of the federal government to other agencies, organisations, and individuals.

-The impact of digital media on public records in two phases:


I. The transfer of paper records to computerised databases made it much more efficient to access records in bulk.

II. Government agencies seeking an online presence through such initiatives as e-Government, which is intended to streamline interactions between citizens and residents and all levels of government.

-Doe v. Porlitz (1995), challenged “Megan’s Law,” (sex offenders having to register with local authorities/community notification for those deemed high risk). The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that public safety was more important than personal privacy in a matter such as this. In contrast, the Department of Defense vs. Fair Labour Relations Authority (1994) states that  “an individual’s interest in controlling the dissemination of information regarding personal matters does not dissolve simply because that information may be available to the public in some form.”


2. Social Networks and Privacy:


-Social networking sites constitute a subdomain of the larger social software ecosystem, frequently called Web 2.0, a loose class of websites dedicated to creating and maintaining social ties, groups, and networks (i.e, blogs, dating services, collaborative wikis, Facebook, et al).

-Three different types of privacy issues have arisen in the context of social network sites:


I. Individuals posting information about themselves, which later gets them in to trouble when discovered.

II. The practise of posting content about others one’s web page.

III. Radical shifts in the capacity to share and disseminate information, but also the capacities to monitor and track. 



  1. Pingback: Summary: Helen Nissenbaum’s Privacy in Context, Ch. 4-6 | New Media Genres - February 25, 2013

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