Mills: Technology jeopardizes individual privacy

Published: October 13th, 2008

Category: Feature, News

Jon MillsJon Mills and his new book, Privacy: The lost right. (UF Law/Chen Wang)

Technology has intruded into every aspect of modern life, from how people die to how they conduct their public and private business. Although the benefits of technology are obvious, the risks can be huge.

That’s because every cell phone call, credit card transaction, discount card purchase, Internet site visited, or e-mail sent or received is fair game for information poachers to filch at will and without your knowledge. So states a new book released this month, Privacy: The Lost Right (Oxford University Press), authored by Jon Mills, a University of Florida Levin College of Law professor, dean emeritus, and founder of the university’s Center for Governmental Responsibility.

“Technology has moved too fast for the law, which is not totally surprising,” said Mills. “The combination of the Internet and a broad range of scientific advances, like genetic testing, have created information and societal changes with which the law has not been able to keep pace.”

Privacy: The Lost Right draws on Mills’ academic, courtroom and legislative experiences and explores examples of privacy intrusions enabled by technology ranging from disclosure of private online video rentals, Internet purchasing habits, spyware that tracks personal online viewing habits, governmental and corporate intrusions, and salacious or defamatory Web postings made by anonymous bloggers. He outlines the legal protections people have — or don’t have — to prevent these intrusions, and offers options to bolster legal protections of privacy.

Mills also relates his personal experiences as an attorney who has made successful arguments in several, high-profile court cases that have defined the First Amendment boundaries of the press’ right to know and an individual’s right to privacy. These included blocking the release of grisly autopsy photos of six young people murdered by serial killer Danny Rolling, preventing the posting of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s autopsy photos to the Internet, and closing the homicide investigation file containing detailed personal information on murdered fashion mogul Gianni Versace.

These cases were sensationalized in the media and riveted public attention, but the privacy invasions of the information age that don’t garner any attention can do equal harm, said Mills.

“People are unaware of how many intrusions they face during everyday life because it is not in any intruders’ interest to put the public on notice, and when they do it’s usually only in the fine print,” said Mills. “We don’t know when somebody has gathered and sold our private information, we don’t know that somebody looked at our medical records and that it affected the way we were treated in a job search.”

Mills said it is not just government or the press or the anonymous bloggers or the data brokers that have the ability to violate our privacy rights, it’s all of the above together. Although Americans enjoy the conveniences of the Internet, camera phones and online commerce, Mills contends few of us surrendered all privacy for convenience — at least not knowingly.

“Americans cherish their privacy and the legal tools that protect it. At no time in our history have the challenges to personal privacy been so great,” said Janet Reno, former U.S. attorney general. “Jon Mills is uniquely qualified through legal, political and academic experience to address these challenges.”