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A group of college students surrounding their instructor, in front of a screen with the name of the course on it.

Tracy Mitrano

Here is the final paper assignment prompt for the course I taught in information science, Surveillance and Privacy. How would you answer it?

A wonderful class, as noted by the photo! Congratulations, graduates!

Warren and Brandeis’s 1890 law review article, “The Right of Privacy,” invited lawmakers to instantiate privacy rights in U.S. law. More than a century later, the United States has created a patchwork of those rights. By the middle of the 20th century, the legal scholar Prosser added four distinct privacy torts to the civil cannon. Around the same time, the Supreme Court in the 1960s found privacy rights in intimate areas of people’s lives (contraception and a little later abortion, and then later same-sex marriage) as well as in Fourth Amendment rights in electronic communications.

Attempts to find privacy rights in “data” or “information” have been less successful, notwithstanding the fact that United States is a key player in a 21st-century global information economy. The events of Sept. 11, the first time the United States was attacked by a foreign enemy on its own soil, called for extraordinary measures using the full potential of surveillance technologies to investigate terrorism. In the marketplace, the absence of comprehensive information protection has allowed for the flourishing of U.S. internet companies. Innovation and business development has largely been allowed to flourish unheeded by stringent government regulation.

According to other observers, the lack of such rights has created “information inequality” wherein the Fourth Amendment is routinely flouted by antiquated public law (the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, specifically) set against sophisticated surveillance technologies and secret government practices. With constitutional rights in the balance, many citizens have become suspicious or even openly distrustful of government. In the marketplace, the absence of consumer privacy rights has led to serious critiques of the business models of some of the most power technology companies in the world: Alphabet (Google), Microsoft and Facebook as the primary examples. It is argued that people are profiled so profoundly by data marts, social media and search engines that they, the users, are rendered commodities.

Consumer artificial intelligence has emerged in the U.S. as a powerful new technology promising to transform virtually all areas of human experience. With the challenges of internet technologies still very much upon us (security incidents, failures of platform accountability, mis/disinformation, government surveillance, the rendering of consumers into commodities, etc.), the potential for greater, even existential problems associated with AI have counterbalanced its proposed benefits. A principal founder of OpenAI (which has partnered with Microsoft) promises that AI will generate trillions of dollars of wealth in the global economy. A principal technologist within Alphabet, alternatively, has left the company to speak about how people may begin to address some of the threats that AI poses to all of humanity.

With consumer AI only having launched only a few months ago, it is impossible to know what direction social norms, the market, additional technologies or the law will take in the face of existing concerns about the use of information technologies augmented by the possibility of new, perhaps even greater concerns raised by AI. One thing we know for sure, however: it will take a thoughtful and informed new generation to wrestle responsibly with these issues and in a manner that recognizes that how they are addressed will weigh extraordinarily on the international relationships and the future of our own government and society.

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