Centre for Internet & Society

Looking at the larger picture of national security versus consumer privacy, Sahana Sarkar says that though consumer privacy is important in the world of digital technology, individuals must put aside some of their civil liberties when it comes to the question of national security, as it is necessary to prevent societal damage.

What is Consumer Privacy?

In today’s digital economy generating consumer information is inevitable. Though some companies use the personal information they obtain to improve and provide more services to consumers, many companies use the information in an irresponsible manner. 

In countries that do provide legal protection for consumer privacy, it is never protected as an absolute right. Consumer privacy is not considered an absolute right for three reasons:

  1. What constitutes consumer privacy is culturally, contextually, individually defined
  2. Consumer privacy often conflicts with other market rights 
  3. The ownership of a consumer's private information is debated — as consumer's believe they own the information and businesses believe they own the information. 

In order to understand consumer privacy it is useful to outline the privacy expectations and strategies of both consumers and businesses, and to also examine the protection measures taken by firms to safeguard consumer information. The major privacy concerns held by consumer's can be broken down into three main domains:

  1. Consumers want to be informed about the type of information that is being collected from them. 
  2. Consumers need to know that they a certain degree of control over the personal information that is being collected. 
  3. Consumers need to be assured that their personal information will be secure and will not be abused or stolen.

Though privacy has been defined by many as the "right to be let alone", its application in today’s modern world is not that straightforward. We live in a world where our purchasing behavior,  both online and offline, is shared and used invisibly. For instance, if an individual uses a social networking site, it is possible for a third party application to access personal information that is shared. Similarly, if an individual uses a warranty card or loyalty card during a purchase, it is possible for third parties, like data brokers, to collect and use the individuals' personal information. 

For instance,15 consumer privacy groups have filed a complaint against Facebook for limiting user's ability to browse anonymously. The complaint was regarding the fact that users only had the choice to designate personal information as publicly linkable, or to not provide information at all. Though Facebook claims to ensure users control over their personal data by allowing users to choose their privacy settings, it does not clarify that these setting can change at any given point.  Moreover, the latest privacy embarrassment that hit Facebook proves again that Facebook does not protect users’ privacy. A few weeks ago Facebook admitted to passing personal information of its users onto different gaming applications. These gaming applications have in turn passed the information on to advertisers who otherwise could not have accessed the information.[1]

Breach of Privacy in Information Collection

Internet users often fear the loss of personal privacy, because of the ability businesses and their websites have to collect, store, and process personal data.  For example, sites extract information from consumers through a form, and then record data about their user’s browsing habit.  After collecting user information, the sites match the data with their personal and demographic information to create a profile of the user’s preferences, which is then used to promote targeted advertisements or provide customized services. The sites might also engage in web lining through which they price a consumer according to their profiles. 

Online there are two main ways in which sites collect user information: 

  1. Sites collect information directly through a server software. Sites often use automatic software logs to do this.  
  2. A third party extracts information from the site without the consumer’s knowledge. Sites often place cookies on websites to extract user information. 

Automatic software logs and third party cookie placement are two overlooked aspect of information collection.  Cookies work by collecting personal information while a user surfs the net, and then feeds the information back to a Web server. Cookies are either used to remember the user, or are used by network advertising agencies to target product advertisements based on long term profiles of user’s buying and surfing habits. An example of a website that uses cookies is 'double click'. Web bugs are used by advertising networks to add information to the personal profiles stored in cookies. Web bugs are also used in junk email campaigns to see how many visits the site gets. Cookies and web bugs are just two out of hundreds of technologies used to collect personal information. [2]

Challenges Posed by Protection of Consumer Privacy

In conclusion, I would like to talk about the difficulty in maintaining a balance between the legal collections of information and protecting privacy of consumers. Above I demonstrated how this conflict arises between businesses and consumers  and is rooted in businesses wanting personal information for commercial reasons, and a user wanting protection and control over their own information. This conflict can also arise between consumers, businesses, and political bodies. An example that demonstrates this is the ongoing conflict between RIM (Research in Motion) and the Government of India. The Government of India has issued a warning against RIM saying that it would suspend its blackberry operations if they do not adhere to the Indian laws and regulations. 

The Ministry of Home Affairs is demanding that RIM allow access to encrypted content that flows in and out of India. In other words the Government of India wants RIM to allow the security forces to have access to  data sent using Blackberries by reducing  encryption levels, or by providing the government with the decryption keys. The demand by the government is somewhat ironic as Blackberry manufacturers have developed the Blackberry encryption key to protect the consumers’ privacy during any business deal, so that information is not compromised. On the other side of the debate, the government is demanding access to Blackberry communications, because their inability to decrypt the codes makes countering the threats to national security difficult. This is especially true for a country like India, which is constantly facing threats from Maoists, and extremist Islamic groups. 

This example highlights an important question:  what is more important  national security or consumer privacy? In 2010, RIM agreed to negotiate access to consumer messages only where access requests are within local laws. Blackberry also agreed to not make any specific deals with consumers, and to make its enterprise systems security and confidentiality non-negotiable.


Though, consumer privacy is very important especially in a world of digital technology, however, when we speak of national security, I feel that individuals must set aside some of their civil liberties  — at least to the extent that it is necessary to prevent societal damage. For a clearer understanding of national security vs consumer privacy look at the case of RIM Vs Indian Government in the following sites:



[2]http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/olds/ecommerce/privacytext.htmlFor an overview of some of these new data-collection technologies, along with some information on privacy-enhancing technologies such as P3P, see Developing Technologies.

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