The New York Times takes a look at the continuing issue of technological innovations outpacing protections for privacy of the individual.
“Solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress,” the privacy experts wrote in the Harvard Law Review. “In this, as in other branches of commerce, the supply creates demand,” they added; and that demand, they noted, ends up broadcasting our private matters in public spheres.
Sound familiar? The review article, written in 1890 by the young lawyers Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, concerned the spread of that era’s viral technology: snapshot photography. Newspaper photographers, the lawyers wrote, were feeding an “unseemly gossip” industry by taking and publishing candid shots of people without their consent. […]
On the one hand, consumers often benefit from newfangled gizmos — be they cameras, tape recorders or cellphones. On the other hand, the widespread adoption of technology has often left legislators and regulators racing to play catch up.
The F.T.C., for instance, just published a report in which agency experts concluded that data-collection techniques on the Web had outdistanced user privacy control. So it was only natural that [Jon Leibowitz, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission,] looked to tradition and invoked the 19th-century law review article, which essentially laid the legal foundations for protecting Americans’ privacy rights. […]
“The laws haven’t really kept pace with the unbelievable developments,” says Jessica Rich, deputy director of the trade commission’s bureau on consumer protection.
As an example, Ms. Rich cited the 1960s, when deeper credit reporting allowed companies to use advanced database technology to collect consumers’ financial information. Once legislators began to understand how such databases could affect people’s ability to obtain mortgages, housing and even jobs, she said, Congress enacted the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The 1970 law allowed consumers to retrieve and correct credit information about themselves.