Functional Ethics and Privacy

Katz and Rhodes started out their foray into ethics and technology in Beyond Ethical Frames of Technical Relations by exploring briefly the potential hypocrisy in a nonprofit of using different terms to describe cognitively disabled people in internal communication versus external communication. This example certainly played into their arguments that communication can vary depending upon what ethical frame people are using at a given moment.

It reminded me of an article that I read which made the claim that profanity is shifting, making terms that derogate minority populations far more taboo than they ever were in the past. This lends greater weight to the idea that ethics may exist in various levels, because that company certainly had a standard that conformed to cultural norms of proper terminology, but within that framework, the standard was different when utility was more important than brand maintenance. Yet, I doubt that disrespect to that population was meant, and truly disparaging terms were not used at all, instead they used simply less accepted but simpler terms in order to get the job done.

The same thing could easily be seen in verbal communication. Most people will behave in a more formal manner with an external customer than they will with a coworker, because the expectations of behavior differ based on familiarity. For example, when I email my coworkers, even about work related things, I may include something funny or an emoticon, which would be inappropriate with a customer or even a supervisor. I really don’t think that having different frames for ethics is something that is exclusive to technology, but that we often adjust our ethical code to match our audience, at least to some extent. But it is just like in technical communication, we always have to adjust to the needs of the audience.

Like ethics, privacy and trust are interesting topics to consider in relation to emerging media. While the Paine Schofield and Joinson article Privacy, Trust, and Disclosure Online delves primarily into how such concepts interact in an e-commerce situation, I always think of privacy as it functions within my job. I work at a hospital, so I sort of think of internet privacy like medical records. Because of HIPAA, medical records are privileged information and so most people would not think twice about them, people just assume that they are extremely private. However, they don’t know or consider the people who handle the information that goes into their medical record, the people who ensure that information is placed correctly and is complete. Many people see medical information before it is filed or committed to the electronic medical record. But, it is still considered private information because all those people who have seen the information are not allowed to talk about it.

I feel like internet privacy is very similar. Generally, if people don’t think too deeply about it, they will assume that they have complete privacy in their online interactions, when the reality is that they have less absolute anonymity than they believe. But, because of a reputation economy that regulates privacy to some extent, there is some level of privacy, even if it is not as absolute as we would like. There is also always the potential for a breach in privacy. I think that generally, it is far easier for us to assume a safety that doesn’t exist because doing otherwise would cripple our ability to function effectively within our increasingly technology saturated world.

Posted on November 17, 2013, in Society, Trust. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hi:

    I think you’re so right when you say, “it is far easier for us to assume a safety that doesn’t exist because doing otherwise would cripple our ability to function effectively within our increasingly technology saturated world.” After I read Christine’s post (just below yours), I seriously thought to myself that I’m not doing any business with bank accounts or credit cards online or technologically (by phone!) anymore. But, to be honest, I feel like I would be so inconvenienced! (it would cripple my ability to function effectively!).

    That link to “what the Internet knows about me” is so cool!

    • I know, as much as I want privacy, I am willing to value expediency over my privacy. The convenience seems worth the invasion of privacy.

  2. I agree that if we didn’t trust the safety and privacy of conducting internet transactions, it would “cripple our ability to function effectively.” I have definitely personally experienced breaches of privacy in the medical realm as well as the internet realm, and while that is a scary, negative thing, I cannot continually worry about it because there is nothing in particular I can do about it. Conducting transactions via the internet has simply become part of life.

  3. “I feel like internet privacy is very similar. Generally, if people don’t think too deeply about it, they will assume that they have complete privacy in their online interactions, when the reality is that they have less absolute anonymity than they believe.” Well stated!

    It reminds me of a quote from internet scholar Jonathan Zittrain: “The Internet is a collective hallucination that works as long as we don’t stare at it too carefully.”

  4. I completely agree with your point about altering our ethics based on our audience. I am very business like when at work, but there are individuals that I have gotten to know, and that have gotten to know me, that I can speak more freely with. I’m a very sarcastic person by nature, but that often gets lost in things like instant messenger and email. I often hold that back until someone has gotten to know me better and understand my sense of humor. People would probably think I was an aweful person if they didn’t understand when I was joking.

    I also agree with your point about our illusion of internet privacy. I’ve had my credit card information stolen before, but I still use one online. I’m aware of the risks, but I am also aware of the protections that my credit card company provides in cases of fraudulent charges.

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