Because of technological advances, we must spell out what used to be taken for granted.
As it becomes commonplace for people to own RFID readers, the transaction costs for going through someone’s curbside trash decrease considerably
Photograph by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.
Thanks to the real state website Zillow, it's now super easy to profit from your neighbor’s suffering. With a few easy clicks, you can find out “if a homeowner has defaulted on the mortgage and by how much, whether a house has been taken back by the lender, and what a house might sell for in foreclosure,” as the Los Angeles Times recently reported. After using the service, you can stop by the Johnsons’ to make them a low-ball offer, perhaps sweetening the exploitation with a plate of cookies.
Maybe that’s not fair. Zillow doesn’t let people opt-out, but the company omits borrowers’ names, has a process for correcting mistakes, and uploads only legal information that was previously—albeit inconveniently—available.
Zillow is cutting the cord of time-consuming real estate bureaucracy, but it’s just part of a larger story presciently described in a 2007 SMU Law Reviewarticle by University of Colorado Law School professor Harry Surden. According to Surden, big data networks persistently chip away at privacy interests and expand the surveillance society’s reach—and we’re about to see a lot more of it. Surden argues that privacy is safeguarded by barriers that make it hard for others to thwart our interest in limiting access to information. Bring down these walls—which Surden calls constraints—and prying eyes can capitalize on newfound vulnerability. Accordingly, we need to reassess how we think about our privacy rights, and what personal information should be included in that class.
Evan Selinger is Associate Professor of Philosophy and MAGIC Center Head of Research Communications, Community & Ethics, both at Rochester Institute of Technology. Evan publishes extensively in the areas of philosophy of technology, privacy, and ethics/policy of science and technology. To enhance public debate about ethics, Evan regularly supplements his peer-reviewed scholarship with outreach articles in places like The Atlantic, Wired, Slate, Forbes,The Wall Street Journal, and The Nation.
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