Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Politics of Privacy - what does it mean?

In recent years, revolutionary technical innovations in the areas of telecommunication, data transmission and computerisation have changed the availability of data fundamentally. Today, any sort of data is available everywhere and immediately in principle. At the same time the capacity for storing data has grown tremendously, and the fact that stored data can be digitally processed and linked to each other means that new data can be generated from very diverse sources of information, giving them a new quality.
The question who exerts control over such "flows of data", who has access rights, and what purposes they can be used for, is one of immense political importance, and raises a host of problems. To an increasing extent, this topic is getting onto the political agenda in many countries - see the debate surrounding the PATRIOT Act in the United States, for example. Political science, however, has so far hardly dealt with these questions both in their normative and empirical dimensions, although this is a very promising area of potentially fruitful research. Potential areas of inquiry range from questions of data protection and civil rights to that of the introduction of (machine readable and biometric) ID cards and CCTV camera coverage of large parts of public spaces and the availability of passenger travel data for anti-terrorism purposes or questions of e-commerce.
Technological developments in this area are inherently ambiguous and therefore need to be politically assessed before their potential application. Some examples may serve to illustrate this: does the combination of computers, face-recognition software and CCTV cameras, for example, constitute a step towards more efficient crime fighting (which would be positive), or a step towards an Orwellian surveillance state (which would be negative)? Does general access to strong encryption of data traffic spur up the development of e-commerce (and thus economic growth), or will it facilitate the execution of organised criminality without the fear of detection (and thus needs to be stopped)?
I am starting a research project dealing with some of the questions touched upon above, and I start this blog as an experiment. I hope that it will be a source of information and discussion for people interested in this subject, that it will serve as a place to exchange views and thoughts, and that it will make a positive contribution to the debate - and my research project. So I extend an invitation to all comers to comment on the postings and links they find here. And if you want to become a contributor, let me know -- just mention it in a comment!

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