Personal Privacy in the Computer Age: The Challenge of a New Technology in an Information-Oriented Society

The purpose of this Article is to survey the new technology’s implications for personal privacy and to evaluate the contemporary common-law and statutory pattern relating to data-handling. In the course of this examination, it will appraise the existing framework’s capacity to deal with the problems created by society’s growing awareness of the primordial character of information. The Article is intended to be suggestive; any attempt at definitiveness would be premature. Avowedly, it was written with the bias of one who believes that the new information technology has enormous long-range societal implications and who is concerned about the consequences of the notion that man shapes his tools and then they shape him. The assumption throughout is that the computer is not simply a sophisticated indexing machine, a miniaturized library, or an electronic abacus; it is the keystone of a new communications medium that eventually will have global dimensions. Thus, it would be overly simplistic to examine the computer-privacy issue from the perspective of a particular machine or group of machines operating in a federal office building, in the headquarters of one of the nation’s major industrial complexes, or in the recesses of a great university. Indeed, the analogy between the forces that gave rise to the multifaceted regulation of the airlines, railroads, radio, and television and the problems that already are generating pressure for the regulation of computer transmissions and facilities seems obvious. It is against the template of the potential need for a comprehensive regulatory scheme embracing some uses of the technology in both the public and private sectors that the question of protecting individual privacy in the computer age must be placed.