Reading: Information Privacy


Cover of Time magazine entitled Information privacy, or data privacy (or data protection), is the relationship between collection and dissemination of data, technology, the public expectation of privacy, and the legal and political issues surrounding them.

Privacy concerns exist wherever personally identifiable information or other sensitive information is collected and stored – in digital form or otherwise. Improper or non-existent disclosure control can be the root cause for privacy issues. Data privacy issues can arise in response to information from a wide range of sources, such as:

  • Healthcare records
  • Criminal justice investigations and proceedings
  • Financial institutions and transactions
  • Biological traits, such as genetic material
  • Residence and geographic records
  • Ethnicity
  • Privacy breach
  • Location-based service and geolocation

The challenge in data privacy is to share data while protecting personally identifiable information. The fields of data security and information security design and utilize software, hardware and human resources to address this issue. As the laws and regulations related to Data Protection are constantly changing, it is important to keep abreast of any changes in the law and continually reassess your compliance with data privacy and security regulations.

Information types

Various types of personal information often come under privacy concerns.


The ability to control the information one reveals about oneself over the Internet, and who can access that information, has become a growing concern. These concerns include whether email can be stored or read by third parties without consent, or whether third parties can continue to track the web sites someone has visited. Another concern is web sites which are visited collect, store, and possibly share personally identifiable information about users.

The advent of various search engines and the use of data mining created a capability for data about individuals to be collected and combined from a wide variety of sources very easily. The FTC has provided a set of guidelines that represent widely accepted concepts concerning fair information practices in an electronic marketplace called the Fair Information Practice Principles.

In order not to give away too much personal information, e-mails should be encrypted and browsing of webpages as well as other online activities should be done trace-less via anonymizers, or, in cases those are not trusted, by open source distributed anonymizers, so-called mix nets, such as I2P - The Onion Router or Tor.

Email isn't the only Internet use with concern of privacy. Everything is accessible over the Internet nowadays. However a major issue with privacy relates back to social networking. For example, there are millions of users on Facebook, and regulations have changed. People may be tagged in photos or have valuable information exposed about themselves either by choice or most of the time unexpectedly by others. It is important to be cautious of what is being said over the Internet and what information is being displayed as well as photos because this all can searched across the web and used to access private databases making it easy for anyone to quickly go online and profile a person.

Cable television

The ability to control what information one reveals about oneself over cable television, and who can access that information. For example, third parties can track IP TV programs someone has watched at any given time.

The addition of any information in a broadcasting stream is not required for an audience rating survey, additional devices are not requested to be installed in the houses of viewers or listeners, and without the necessity of their cooperation, audience ratings can be automatically performed in real-time.


A person may not wish for their medical records to be revealed to others. This may be because they have concern that it might affect their insurance coverages or employment. Or it may be because they would not wish for others to know about medical or psychological conditions or treatments which would be embarrassing. Revealing medical data could also reveal other details about one's personal life. Privacy Breach There are three major categories of medical privacy: informational (the degree of control over personal information), physical (the degree of physical inaccessibility to others), and psychological (the extent to which the doctor respects patients’ cultural beliefs, inner thoughts, values, feelings, and religious practices and allows them to make personal decisions). Physicians and psychiatrists in many cultures and countries have standards for doctor-patient relationships which include maintaining confidentiality. In some cases, the physician-patient privilege is legally protected. These practices are in place to protect the dignity of patients, and to ensure that patients will feel free to reveal complete and accurate information required for them to receive the correct treatment. The United States has laws governing privacy of private health information, see HIPAA and the HITECH Act.


Information about a person's financial transactions, including the amount of assets, positions held in stocks or funds, outstanding debts, and purchases can be sensitive. If criminals gain access to information such as a person's accounts or credit card numbers, that person could become the victim of fraud or identity theft. Information about a person's purchases can reveal a great deal about that person's history, such as places he/she has visited, whom he/she has contacted with, products he/she has used, his/her activities and habits, or medications he/she has used. In some cases corporations might wish to use this information to target individuals with marketing customized towards those individual's personal preferences, something which that person may or may not approve.


A map of the UK with dots showing all the locations of an iPhone. The dots show all the locations logged by an iPhone without the user's knowledge.

As location tracking capabilities of mobile devices are increasing (Location-based service), problems related to user privacy arise. Location data is indeed among the most sensitive data currently being collected. A list of potentially sensitive professional and personal information that could be inferred about an individual knowing only his mobility trace was published recently by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. These include the movements of a competitor sales force, attendance of a particular church or an individual's presence in a motel or at an abortion clinic. A recent MIT study by de Montjoye et al. showed that 4 spatio-temporal points, approximate places and times, are enough to uniquely identify 95% of 1.5M people in a mobility database. The study further shows that these constraints hold even when the resolution of the dataset is low. Therefore, even coarse or blurred datasets provide little anonymity.


Political privacy has been a concern since voting systems emerged in ancient times. The secret ballot is the simplest and most widespread measure to ensure that political views are not known to anyone other than the voter him/herself—it is nearly universal in modern democracy, and considered to be a basic right of citizenship. In fact even where other rights of privacy do not exist, this type of privacy very often does.


In the United Kingdom, in 2012 the Education Secretary Michael Gove described the National Pupil Database as a "rich dataset" whose value could be "maximized" by making it more openly accessible, including to private companies. Kelly Fiveash of The Register said that this could mean "a child's school life including exam results, attendance, teacher assessments and even characteristics" could be available, with third-party organizations being responsible for anonymizing any publications themselves, rather than the data being anonymized by the government before being handed over. An example of a data request that Gove indicated had been rejected in the past, but might be possible under an improved version of privacy regulations, was for "analysis on sexual exploitation."


The legal protection of the right to privacy in general - and of data privacy in particular - varies greatly around the world.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.—Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12
There is a significant challenge for organizations that hold sensitive data to achieve and maintain compliance with so many regulations that have relevance to information privacy.

Safe Harbor Program and Passenger Name Record issues

Photo: Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, right, delivers remarks as Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead looks on after the signing of the memorandum of agreement for the Safe Harbor program during a signing ceremony at the Pentagon. Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, right, delivers remarks as Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead looks on after the signing of the memorandum of agreement for the Safe Harbor program during a signing ceremony at the Pentagon.

The United States Department of Commerce created the International Safe Harbor Privacy Principles certification program in response to the1995 Directive on Data Protection (Directive 95/46/EC) of the European Commission. Directive 95/46/EC declares in Chapter IV Article 25 that personal data may only be transferred from the countries in the European Economic Area to countries which provide adequate privacy protection. Historically, establishing adequacy required the creation of national laws broadly equivalent to those implemented by Directive 95/46/EU. Although there are exceptions to this blanket prohibition - for example where the disclosure to a country outside the EEA is made with the consent of the relevant individual (Article 26(1)(a)) - they are limited in practical scope. As a result, Article 25 created a legal risk to organizations which transfer personal data from Europe to the United States.

The program has an important issue on the exchange of Passenger Name Record information between the EU and the US. According to the EU directive, personal data may only be transferred to third countries if that country provides an adequate level of protection. Some exceptions to this rule are provided, for instance when the controller himself can guarantee that the recipient will comply with the data protection rules.

The European Commission has set up the "Working party on the Protection of Individuals with regard to the Processing of Personal Data," commonly known as the "Article 29 Working Party". The Working Party gives advice about the level of protection in the European Union and third countries.

The Working Party negotiated with U.S. representatives about the protection of personal data, the Safe Harbor Principles were the result. Notwithstanding that approval, the self-assessment approach of the Safe Harbor remains controversial with a number of European privacy regulators and commentators.

The Safe Harbor program addresses this issue in a unique way: rather than a blanket law imposed on all organizations in the United States, a voluntary program is enforced by the FTC. U.S. organizations which register with this program, having self-assessed their compliance with a number of standards, are "deemed adequate" for the purposes of Article 25. Personal information can be sent to such organizations from the EEA without the sender being in breach of Article 25 or its EU national equivalents. The Safe Harbor was approved as providing adequate protection for personal data, for the purposes of Article 25(6), by the European Commission on 26 July 2000.

The Safe Harbor is not a perfect solution to the challenges posed by Article 25. In particular, adoptee organisations need to carefully consider their compliance with the onward transfer obligations, where personal data originating in the EU is transferred to the US Safe Harbor, and then onward to a third country. The alternative compliance approach of "binding corporate rules", recommended by many EU privacy regulators, resolves this issue. In addition, any dispute arising in relation to the transfer of HR data to the US Safe Harbor must be heard by a panel of EU privacy regulators.

In July 2007, a new, controversial, Passenger Name Record agreement between the US and the EU was undersigned. A short time afterwards, the Bush administration gave exemption for the Department of Homeland Security, for the Arrival and Departure Information System (ADIS) and for the Automated Target System from the 1974 Privacy Act.

In February 2008, Jonathan Faull, the head of the EU's Commission of Home Affairs, complained about the US bilateral policy concerning PNR. The US had signed in February 2008 a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Czech Republic in exchange of a VISA waiver scheme, without concerting before with Brussels. The tensions between Washington and Brussels are mainly caused by a lesser level of data protection in the US, especially since foreigners do not benefit from the US Privacy Act of 1974. Other countries approached for bilateral MOU included the United Kingdom, Estonia, Germany and Greece.

Protecting privacy in information systems

As heterogeneous information systems with differing privacy rules are interconnected and information is shared, policy appliances will be required to reconcile, enforce and monitor an increasing amount of privacy policy rules (and laws). There are two categories of technology to address privacy protection in commercial IT systems: communication and enforcement.

Policy Communication

  • P3P - The Platform for Privacy Preferences. P3P is a standard for communicating privacy practices and comparing them to the preferences of individuals.

Policy Enforcement

  • XACML - The Extensible Access Control Markup Language together with its Privacy Profile is a standard for expressing privacy policies in a machine-readable language which a software system can use to enforce the policy in enterprise IT systems.
  • EPAL - The Enterprise Privacy Authorization Language is very similar to XACML, but is not yet a standard.
  • WS-Privacy - "Web Service Privacy" will be a specification for communicating privacy policy in web services. For example, it may specify how privacy policy information can be embedded in the SOAP envelope of a web service message.

Protecting Privacy on the Internet

On the Internet you almost always give away a lot of information about yourself: Unencrypted e-mails can be read by the administrators of the e-mail server, if the connection is not encrypted (no https), and also the Internet service provider and other parties sniffing the traffic of that connection are able to know the contents. Furthermore, the same applies to any kind of traffic generated on the Internet (web-browsing,instant messaging, among others) In order not to give away too much personal information, e-mails can be encrypted and browsing of webpages as well as other online activities can be done traceless via anonymizers, or, in cases those are not trusted, by open source distributed anonymizers, so called mix nets. Renowned open-source mix nets are I2P - The Anonymous Network or tor.

Licenses and Attributions