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The age of information technology has changed the way people relate with one another, how information is accessed, and the responsibilities arising from the utility value of information under someone’s possession. Effectively, an individual’s right to privacy comes under sharp focus and people try to strike a balance between what should be available to the public or institutions and what should be retained by an individual concerning their private lives. This paper seeks to explain the dilemma mentioned above by pitting the grounds for the right to privacy against the utility value arising from the advent of information technology and therefore offer possible solutions for the problems that arise from the interaction.
The right to privacy is an inherent human right and a necessary social component that humans are entitled to in order to function and coexist peacefully. The idea of information technology is to use, design and advance computer-based applications that help human beings interact with one another and with work-related machinery in a way that improves efficiency in communication, work output and returns in general. From the onset, it is clear that human beings have become heavily dependent on IT to advance in life. Information Technology has permeated nearly every area of daily human interaction and can be considered almost indispensable in the current civilization. Therefore the bigger question is not whether human beings need technology to survive but rather whether the dependence on IT has made the right to privacy dispensable for the sake of achieving the greater IT good. The right to privacy means that a person retains the discretion to decide what and how much of information is for public consumption concerning their private lives. The right to privacy also protects individuals from insecurities through personally identifying information and also indecent and embarrassing exposure that could ruin their moral and social standing in the public eye. According to Thompson the two greatest threats to possession of personal information any institution has to deal with is theft of identity and breach of privacy (Thompson, 2002)
In order to understand the critical issues as hand, this paper will seek to explain key human interest areas that IT has become very important in, how that affects the privacy of people and possible ways of navigating through the privacy rights and concerns while retaining the value of Information Technology.
IT is very wide in its scope and therefore this paper will only deal with a few critical areas that specifically touch on information that can be considered private and therefore deal with issues emerging from that.
Uses of Information Technology
Information Technology gadgets interact with information by way of collecting, storing, retrieving, manipulating, and disseminating the same. The environment within which this processes take place is often times unmitigated and consequently information that is perceived as private may find its way into the public domain without the consent of the person involved. Access to information has over the years become not only easy but available to millions of people the world over. The technology industries come up with improvements upon improvements of their gadgets to make them simpler to operate, more efficient, more accessible, and able to do several tasks in real time. The advancement in technology has been largely motivated by competition, the legal framework that allows for development and policies that are technologically friendly. The resulting scenario is a situation where ease of access to information is unprecedented and with it the consequences of intrusion of privacy without proper regulation to protect individual rights to privacy.
Information Technology has great and varied uses but this paper will delve on a few key issues that relate directly to retrieval of information of personal nature.
For any health sector to function properly, it must have succinct information about its patients both new and continuing, in and out-patients. This exercise requires profiling the patients in order to know how to serve them better should they come back to the facility. The information required is therefore of a personal nature touching on the identity of the patient, their medical history, family associations and possibly other family medical histories. This kind of information is very private yet very crucial for patients to reveal to doctors in order to be served well.
Several pieces of legislation have been effected to protect patients from public scrutiny such as the Doctor-Patient confidentiality clauses.
In this case Information Technology gadgets have been developed to store, retrieve and possibly manipulate information regarding patients.
There are times when patients who suffer from chronic fatal complications have been saved simply by wearing a microchip containing their health records. In this case the patient can be seen and attended to by a different doctor who was not privy to the patient’s medical history and actually treat them to full recovery. This is even more crucial where the patient was alone and they are not in the right state of mind to respond to doctors oral diagnosis or that there is no way of contacting close kin to the patient to explain their condition.
IT has succeeded in helping the health sector to create, store, manipulate and compare and contrast data in order to serve patients better. Patients can access their health records almost instantly and therefore saving critical time in life-deciding moments of treatment. The prospect of keeping track of a patients recovery journey not only helps health providers to serve that patient better but also acts as a documentation of similar ailments for other patients who may in future benefit form such information.
Information Technology is also critical in governance, working environments and learning. Institutions of every kind need to keep a record of their employees, students, members, teams, citizens etc in order to provide services effectively (Staton and Stam, 2002). Once again the nature of information kept here is of a personal nature. Generally the information available to institutions of governance and work places has to do with personal identity, family demographics, health records, addresses of residence, and work history among others. Additionally, institutions of learning may require one to reveal their education history and academic grades. These areas of information touch on the privacy of individuals.
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Information Technology has become very instrumental in carrying out mammoth governance projects such as national census, national elections and constitutional referenda. The exercise of national tallying without IT would not only be expensive but also tedious, long and possibly flawed. Information Technology helps process massive data in record time and with limited financial and human resources.
Information Technology helps governance institutions to carry out planning and budgeting from an informed point of view. The information available to them and opportunities to organize, classify and categorize that information helps create a national picture and therefore provide a framework of national development based on the available information.
In the work environment, Information Technology helps create a picture of the kind of human resources available to the employer and the welfare plans such as hospital and social security insurance plans to prepare for the employees. The information also helps employers to plan capacity building opportunities for different staff levels as well as make projections for organizational growth. According to Staton and Stam (2003) IT helps employers to create patterns and predictions that can result in greater work output by merely studying, recording and analyzing the patterns of employee behavior.
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Learning institutions use IT to keep records and track progress of individuals in learning. IT helps institutions to make academic plans and special needs assessment. By correspondence institutions can also share information for example to help a student transfer academic credits if the student has relocated to another country or changed institutions.
IT has also made it possible for people to communicate across geographical and cultural divides thereby forming social communities that are diverse, multilingual and heterogeneous in every way.
The right to privacy
Any constitution guarantees its citizens a certain level of privacy no matter how autocratic or dictatorial the leadership is. Privacy is not a right granted by any state anywhere, it is an inherent heritage of the human race that can only be guaranteed by the instruments of governance. The right to privacy is a component of freedom without which human beings cannot interact freely and truthfully and form meaningful relationships.
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The greater challenge probably for the utility of information technology is how to responsibly use the instruments of IT in a way that protects individual rights to privacy but at the same time ensuring value from the same.
The right to privacy by legislation has been translated into legally binding contracts between different parties who may be in possession of information holding personal accounts of different people. For example, health institutions exercise doctor-patient confidentiality so that the medical information and any other information shared between the two does not get out of that circle unless the patient agrees to that effect.
Divulging personal information for patients therefore becomes an offence punishable by law. However, there are exceptions in many countries where issues such as national security may compel institutions to divulge personal information, but even then there are safe legal mechanisms for doing so in order to ensure that human dignity is preserved no matter the gravity of the situation.
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Personal information in the hands of institutions necessitates a level of care in terms of how that information is stored, retrieved and utilized.
The Hippocratic Oath doctors take at the beginning of their careers protect patients from the risk of having their private health records checked by any other person. (James et al., 2007)
Institutions therefore need to ensure that the security protocols guarding the information insulate and insure it from access by unauthorized persons. (Thompson, 2002)
The need for information technology cannot be overemphasized but with it comes responsibilities. People need to be assured that the Information collected concerning their private lives is not used for purposes other than what they sign up for. Institutions therefore have immense responsibilities to ensure that information collected is secure and the privacy rights of people are insured without compromise in order to have functional and meaningful work and social relations. People reserve the right to make a final submission regarding how that information is to be used, who else is authorized to access it and how transferable the information is.
In the end there needs to exist a balance between the utility value of Information Technology and the respect for the right to privacy of all individuals no matter who they are.