Is protecting your privacy your job—or your fundamental right?

“Privacy is important on an emotional and psychological level,” says Tori Myers. “Not just a legal one.”

That’s the question posed one day by philosophy professor Diane Michelfelder in her Ethics and the Internet class. But don’t bet on the course’s 15 students reaching consensus by semester’s end.

They're accustomed to active yet respectful discussions that bring together a wide range of opinions on hot-button topics like dataveillance (the technology of monitoring electronic records and activity) and locational privacy (using cell phone signals to track someone's location). “We’ve never had a day in class where we all ended up thinking the same thing,” says Tori Myers ’17 (Indiana, Pa.). "The discussions are passionate but never heated. Everyone knows how to express opposing viewpoints—and people ask questions instead of just jumping to conclusions.”

Because Ethics and the Internet is cross-listed in both computer science and philosophy, it draws students from a diverse mix of academic backgrounds. The class roster includes first-year students and seniors, and majors ranging from biology to political science. It’s the first philosophy class for Benas Klastaitis ’15 (Siauliai, Lithuania), an economics major interested in computer science. As he explains it, the course’s technology-focused discussions and readings, anchored in philosophical theory, have broadened his perspective. “I’m learning to read and write about philosophy,” he says, noting that class discussions have added another layer of understanding because of the relevance of the topics.

In the past decade, mobile devices have changed—and shaped—those conversations about ethics in technology. Michelfelder, who taught her first Internet ethics class in 1996, has modified her course accordingly. This fall’s issues include online gaming, social networking, and copyright issues. “The syllabus keeps getting more future oriented,” she says. “As more devices become Internet-connected, the gap between ethics and technological development appears to be growing.”

To address that dissonance, the course term paper requires students to identify such a gap, then discuss how they might shrink it through a public policy or technological approach.

Throughout the semester, students see that ethical answers aren’t always clear-cut in the Internet era—and in many cases, issues such as locational privacy can be more complicated than what the law covers. “Privacy is important on an emotional and psychological level," says Myers. “Not just a legal one.”

December 3, 2013

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