Information Technology Abuse -- Privacy Issues (Part 1 of 2)

Dennis Faas's picture


Due to the length of this article, it has been sectioned into two parts.

This article presents an overview of current privacy issues, discusses potential methods in which an individual's privacy may be jeopardized, and examines specific countermeasures that can be used to protect private information. The focus of this paper is primarily the privacy of individuals using personal computers in a home environment and on the Internet.

All software applications referenced herein have been tested by this writer on the Windows 98 Second Edition operating system. Other operating systems may not be compatible with all applications mentioned.

The Basis and Need for Privacy Protection

The issue of privacy is a great concern of American citizens. A Dell sponsored survey conducted in August 2000 by Harris Interactive, revealed that loss of personal privacy ranked as an issue of higher concern for Americans than the issues of crime, health care, or the environment (E-consumer confidence study, 2000).

The United States Constitution does not expressly list a right to privacy. However, several of the rights that are specifically guaranteed in the "Bill of Rights", inherently assume that a privacy right exists. For example; the Fourth Amendment's guarantee that citizens will be "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures" implies that privacy is a matter of right. The Fifth Amendment's guarantee that a citizen shall not "be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself" indisputably suggests that the right to keep information private was obvious to all. Two drafters of the U.S. Constitution, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, affirmatively demonstrated their right to privacy by publishing The Federalist Papers anonymously (as cited in Crispo & Grosso, 1998). In recent times, this foundational principle of American law was referred to by the United States Supreme Court as "privacy guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment" (Scalia, 2001). The Privacy Act of 1974, as well as laws banning tampering with U.S. Mail, and stalking, are all expressions of the belief that privacy is a citizen's right and violation of that right produces unfavorable consequences for the individual and for society as a whole.

The reasons underlying laws protecting privacy are numerous. Psychologically, humans have a fundamental need for personal space, and "peace of mind" that their privacy in that space will not be interfered with. One of the most frequent comments heard from burglary victims is how "violated" they feel that someone was going through their belongings. Even people who do not consider privacy to be a significant concern and feel that they "have nothing to hide" typically use curtains on their bedroom windows and send mail sealed in envelopes rather than postal cards. Sociologically, people can function better together if boundaries protecting privacy exist. Without privacy, individuals are far less likely to report organized crimes because of the fear of reprisal. Without privacy, individuals are far less likely to pursue AIDS testing, or treatment for other medical conditions that would make them unable to purchase insurance or subject them to ostracism. Philosophically, privacy is an assertion of human individuality. It is a statement that I have the right to control "this" and to decide if it is disclosed to others or not. It is an assertion of ownership that states, "This belongs to me". Politically, privacy serves as catalyst for free expression. Few, if any, citizens would wish to attend any political rally where their car license plate numbers would be recorded and they would be subjected to suspicion or investigation (Kelly, 2002; Lindsay, 2002). Legally, privacy is a matter of necessity to avoid the consequences of abuse or mishandling of personal information. The spectrum of potential consequences ranges from identity theft and ruined credit (Identity theft, 2001) to being a victim of stalking and murder (Amy Boyer, 2002; Rebecca Schaeffer, 2002).

Potential Threats to Privacy and Methods Employed

Personal information is sought by a wide diversity of agencies and individuals each using differing methods. These groups, and the methods they employ, will be examined below.


This group would include co-workers, family members, and hackers/crackers. Their motivation for accessing personal information could range from professional jealousy, curiosity, mistrust, or malicious/criminal intent. The methods employed by individuals are primarily exploitation of inherent system weaknesses, "social engineering" tactics - such as simply asking for information that allows access, or use of specialized software tools such as monitoring programs, password cracking programs or trojan horse programs. One of the most well known home computer monitoring programs called "Spector" sells for under $70. Hundreds of password cracking and Trojan programs are freely available on Internet on sites such as ...

Continued in the next issue of the Infopackets Gazette.

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