Internet Privacy

The right to privacy in Internet activity is a serious issue facing society.









In 2010, Various World Governments actively monitor all internet traffic. Using the broad umbrella of "searching for terrorism" or "National Security" most are involved in maintaining huge databases of internet activity. For this reason, I do not think that it is possible to be "anonymous" on the net anymore.

However, some users of the 'net wish to shield their identities while participating in frank discussions of sensitive topics. Others fulfill fantasies and harmlessly role play under the cover of a false identity in chatrooms, MUDs or the IRC. But there are the eternal "bad apples," and on the Internet, they are the people who use anonymous servers as more than a way to avoid responsibility for controversial remarks.

Cases of harassment and abuse have become increasingly frequent, aided by a cloak of anonymity.

There are also problems with frauds and scam artists who elude law enforcement authorities through anonymous mailings and postings. Other users are concerned about the proliferation of information on the Internet. Databases of court records are now available for free over the World Wide Web.

Since no formal law exists within cyberspace, Internet users can find recourse only through the applicable laws of their own government. This web page will not attempt to discuss conflict of law in the international arena, but will address US law and its relevance to the American Internet user.

Constitutional Basis for Privacy

Nowhere does the text of the United States Constitution contain the word "privacy." The US Supreme Court has found the concept of "privacy" to be protected by a number of the Amendments. Thus, privacy is known as a "penumbra right." It is the essence of the Bill of Rights and thus a guaranteed right.
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Invasion of Privacy

CCTV Cameras
This page will discuss five aspects of invasion of privacy as it applies to American netizens. These are: search and seizure, unsolicited e-mail, defamation, secrecy and the creation of databases consisting of personal information.

The US Supreme Court has stated that American citizens have the protection of the Fourth Amendment (freedom from search and seizure absent warrant) when there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. Without a reasonable expectation of privacy, however, there is no privacy right to protect. Files stored on disk or tape in the home are protected, but the rule becomes less clear when applied to files stored on an Internet access provider's server. Web servers, on the other hand, may be protected by federal law. Some argue that consent of the access provider, however, is all that is required for law enforcement authorities to search and seize any files in the possession of that access provider. Internet service providers may have a lot of information about the users because servers routinely record information about users' e-mail and web browsing habits.

Unsolicited email is not regulated by federal law at present. Various states have outlawed unsolicited commercial email, however. A federal judge in Philadelphia has ruled that companies have no First Amendment right to send unsolicited messages to online service subscribers. One community remedy preferred by many users is to complain to the offender's service provider and publicly denounce the action on the Internet Blacklist. Another possibility for those with Eudora for the PC is to filter out unsolicited email. Other free software claims to eliminate unwanted email. Individuals have sued spammers in court and won.

Individual states specifically prohibit defamation, no matter what form it takes. Defamation consists of false and unprivileged publication which results in economic damages. Financial loss is not necessary where the statement implies that a person is a criminal or has an unpleasant disease, or which injures a person in respect to his other office, profession, or business. A judge in Texas issued an injunction to stop defamatory posting by an Internet user. Hate messages sent by e-mail have also resulted in criminal penalties.

In some cases, companies have asked the court system to identify the authors of anonymous defamatory messages. This has been done by filing “John Doe” lawsuits and issuing subpoenas to Yahoo! and other message boards where individuals have posted the disparaging messages. Mosty such subpoenas go unchallenged. One CompuServe user has complained that his service provider turned over account information, including credit card numbers, without any notice to him. One such plaintiff, “Raytheon Corporation”, dropped its suit as soon as it discovered the names of the people posting anonymous messages.

Trade secrets and other confidential information can also pose legal problems. Unauthorized entry into a computer system is illegal, whether the target machine is connected to the Internet or not. Nevertheless, hackers still manage to get past the most difficult of firewalls. Compromise of company secrets can lead to millions of dollars in damages. Hacking is not the only danger to sensitive information, however. Some software can tell webmasters which visitors came from which links. In addition, all e-mail has an address attached. Even if the message content is encrypted, system administrators have access to the fact of communication between two parties.

The existence of communication can itself often be secret, and the Internet cannot provide absolute security. In many ways, the Internet abhors secrecy. Many netizens believe in an absolute free-flow of all information.

A few companies are creating huge databases full of private information. Websites may even collect email addresses inadvertently. In many cases, there is no prohibition on the dissemination of personal information. The federal government regulates only its own databases, leaving private database owners to decide how and when to distribute collected information.

Webmasters have begun using "cookies" as a means of accumulating information about web surfers without having to ask for it. Cookies attempt to keep track of visitors to a Web site. Criticism of cookies has included fear of the loss of privacy. The information that cookies collect from users may be profitable both in the aggregate and by the individual. Whether the convenience that cookies provide outweighs the loss of privacy is a question each Internet user must decide for him or herself.

USA: Supreme Court
America Online has been accused of selling data based information about users. This has led to an effort on the part of cookie proponents to control the amount of information that cookies collect. Not all proponents of cookies adhere to the voluntary standards. The Federal Trade Commission determined that Geocities, a onetime popular web site where users inputed personal information, was selling information in apparent violation of its own privacy policy.


Internet users sometimes do not realize the amount of privacy that is lost when accessing the online world. Usenet postings and contributions to bulletin boards may remain archived forever. Public records are available free or for a fee. While much of this information has been freely available in the past, the advent of the Internet has made it available more easily and quickly.


Generally, there is no safety in activity that is unlawful. Anonymity should not be considered a secure shield because, ultimately, any data may be intercepted. An offender is specifically liable for damages to the victim. At times, this liability can be extended to include others (e.g. an employer) with a greater capacity for satisfying the judgment.

In addition, there is current disagreement about whether a system operator or an access provider should be held liable.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 protects access providers from liability for the unlawful acts of users (except copyright infringement or obscenity). Some Courts have protected ISPs and online services from vicarious liability for the acts of subscribers/customers.

On the other hand, vicarious liability, even without knowledge, may result when either the web page designer or the ISP:

  • has the right and ability to control the infringer’s acts.


  • receives a direct financial benefit from the infringement.


Micro Air Vehicle
The law surrounding issues of jurisdiction over individuals and businesses with an online presence continues to evolve. The first such case was U.S. v. Thomas. Courts in Minnesota, Arizona and Ohio have made similar determinations.

One California case is Hall v. LaRonde. In that opinion, the California Appellate Court stated:
* Creating a contract over email could warrant the exercise of jurisdiction.

Some argue that the nature of the Internet could result in forum shopping and the necessity of modifying traditional notions of venue requirements. Other courts have declined to exercise jurisdiction on the simple basis of accessibility of the Web page.

So the question of whether any individual court will decide to find jurisdiction on any specific set of facts is an issue for the judge hearing the case. The US Supreme Court will almost certainly lay down some guidelines within the next few years.


Avoiding the seizure of communication in transit is less a legal problem than a technological one. There is software that can provide privacy protection for the individual Internet user. Hardware exists that can prevent very sophisticated industrial espionage. Of most concern to the common Internet user is protection of email. The most famous encryption software is PGP,created by Phil Zimmerman. The U.S. government has attempted to suppress other means of strong encryption. These attempts have not always been successful, however.

Anonymous discourse is still available through the use of "remailers." Various problems with the forwarding service, a famous anonymous remailing service in Finland, have led to a discontinuation of that service. Other remailers continue to provide anonymity to e-mail and Usenet participants.

The key to anonymous publishing on the World Wide Web is to have as many web servers within the control and/or trust of the publisher. It also helpsto have a number of other servers performing a service to the community.Ian Goldburg and David Wagner at Berkeley are attempting to provide that service.

Recent versions of Netscape and Internet Explorer give web surfers the option of refusing to accept cookies. Windows users may automatically delete all cookies with every restart of the machine.

One Nation under CCTV

Internet Surveillance

Computer surveillance is the act of performing surveillance of computer activity, and of data stored on a hard drive or being transferred over the Internet.

Computer surveillance programs are widespread today, and almost all internet traffic is closely monitored for clues of illegal activity.

Supporters say that watching all internet traffic is important, because by knowing everything that everyone is reading and writing, they can identify terrorists and criminals, and protect society from them.

Critics cite concerns over privacy and the possibility of a totalitarian state where political dissent is impossible and opponents of state policy are removed in COINTELPRO-like purges. Such a state may be referred to as an Electronic Police State, in which the government aggressively uses electronic technologies to record, organize, search and distribute forensic evidence against its citizens.


The right against unsanctioned invasion of privacy by the government, corporations or individuals is part of many countries’ privacy laws, and in some cases, constitutions. Almost all countries have laws which in some way limit privacy; an example of this would be law concerning taxation, which normally require the sharing of information about personal income or earnings.

In some countries individual privacy may conflict with freedom of speech laws and some laws may require public disclosure of information which would be considered private in other countries and cultures. Privacy may be voluntarily sacrificed, normally in exchange for perceived benefits and very often with specific dangers and losses, although this is a very strategic view of human relationships.

Academics who are economists, evolutionary theorists, and research psychologists describe revealing privacy as a ‘voluntary sacrifice’, where sweepstakes or competitions are involved. In the business world, a person may give personal details (often for advertising purposes) in order to enter a gamble of winning a prize. Information which is voluntarily shared and is later stolen or misused can lead to identity theft.

The concept of privacy is most often associated with Western culture, English and North American in particular. According to some researchers, the concept of privacy sets Anglo-American culture apart even from other Western European cultures such as French or Italian. The concept is not universal and remained virtually unknown in some cultures until recent times.


Before attempting anonymity on the Internet, it is best to think for a moment about your purpose and intent in hiding your identity. Think as well about the impact of the statement you wish to communicate. The safest course may be to acknowledge authorship. This avoids the uncertainties of liability and discovery.


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