Privacy Protection and the Quest for
Fred H. Cate
Concerns about the privacy of personal information and the role of law in protecting it predate the Internet, but the development of digital networks and applications, such as the World Wide Web, and their proliferation throughout the industrialized world have intensified and provided a focal point for a global privacy debate.
There are a variety of reasons for this global concern. Many are the result of Internet technologies. For example, since the Internet requires personally identifiable information to provide even the most basic service, the Internet, out of necessity, shares that information widely. Personal data must pass through the hands of multiple parties for an individual to access the Internet, retrieve a specific Web page, or send and receive e-mail. Fortunately, in institutionalizing that reliance on personal information, digital technologies generate, access, and transfer information routinely, rapidly, and often undetectably. But, unfortunately, that reliance on personal information creates an inherent tension between the many desirable uses of the vast store of personal data that Internet technologies facilitate (such as the “Back” button on browsers, “cookies” that eliminate the need to remember passwords and account numbers, and the availability to resuscitate deleted files and access backed-up data) and the perceived threat of these same technologies to personal privacy.
Because of the Internet's wide availability, the ease of connecting to it, and the comparatively low cost of storing, manipulating, and moving data across it, the Internet has become an ideal medium for individuals connecting and accessing collections of personal data. The many advantages, such as real-time access to account information, personalized service, and instant approval for credit transactions, also pose privacy-related risks. Online databases are used for purposes that many people find intrusive or annoying, such as