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Ethics of requiring a digital identity


Today, many websites require that users establish a digital identity – defined as a unique way to identify a person, used by third parties in transactions such as financial transactions. When you are asked to sign into a site using your Facebook account, for example, you are helping to build your digital identity and authenticate your credentials. The use of a digital identity is becoming increasingly common in online forums as a way of decreasing trolling and online harassment.


However, even though we have the technological ability to require people to register on sites online, we still have sites where people may share private details about their medical condition, ask for help for a mental illness, ask an embarrassing question, or engage in discussions of something painful like infertility or the death of a child.


Do you feel that as a society we should ever move to a system where anonymous bulletin boards are not permitted? What good is being created in these situations and why does it trump the need for security, if you believe that it does?

The Privacy Calculus

Many analysts today suggest that consumers engage in what they call a privacy calculus, deciding to 'trade' personal information in return for a discount or convenience.


How much of private information would you be willing to give up in order to save money? Would you be willing to wear a GPS tracker that recorded your steps? Would you be willing to have all your medical information shared with your employer?

Write down everything you eat to prevent obesity? Have a CCTV installed in your house?

Even if doing so saved you money, what are the larger ethical issues?  Is there an issue of equity or justice?  Should wealthier people be able to opt out of surveillance and will poorer people feel compelled to opt in?

Designing for Privacy

In his article on privacy enhancing technologies, Burkert argues that “addressing privacy on the design level is an essential precondition to addressing privacy on the political level.” He calls upon software designers to adopt a default position whereby they will always create a product which is highly protective of user privacy. Then, he argues, it will be the responsibility of law enforcement (or other branches of the government) to explain why it’s necessary to violate user privacy and under what circumstances.

Do you agree with him that designers should adopt the highest privacy settings and the most privacy enhancing technologies as a default setting? Or should the default be towards a product where law enforcement can easily see who is using a product and under which circumstances, in order to enhance citizen and community security?

Describe the ethical principles on which you are basing your position.

RESOURCES for Chapter 4: The Ethics of Privacy, Forgetting, and Forgiveness


Here is another great article about the use of biotechnology enhancements to soldiers.  Ask students to use the Utilitarian Model to think through the PROS and CONS of creating and relying upon technologies like this.  What do we lose and what do we gain?


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