An object-oriented approach to the privacy problems posed by digital information and communication technologies

Whittaker, Louise
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The advent of digital ICT has raised a range of privacy problems that previously did not occur, owing to the scope and volume of data that can be collected, as well as the processing capacity of the application. These digital privacy problems are arguably not easily addressed within any particular traditional macroethical framework. We may therefore need to find an alternative approach. One such approach is proposed by Luciano Floridi, who has devised “Information Ethics” - a macroethics for the identification, clarification and solution of digital ethical issues. While IE is useful in that it highlights questions of digital agency, it will be demonstrated that it is flawed when applied to problems of privacy posed by digital ICT. IE, however, points us in the right direction: An object-oriented ethics may be able to address the issue of digital agents. In this essay I develop an argument for the moral intentionality of digital agents, based on the concepts of emergent value and indirect intentionality, that can underpin an object-oriented ethical approach to digital privacy for both digital and human agents. Using Nissenbaum’s concept of contextual spheres, I provide normative guidelines for evaluating the competing interests of agent-objects in various digital spheres. A brief evaluation of the approach, by way of an example, shows that the object-oriented LoA that I am proposing can be adopted for digital privacy problems. In such cases, and for the specific purpose of weighing up the competing rights and values of the agents and patients, we can treat all agents (human and non-human) as both intentionality and real. This provides a reading of the case that goes beyond the consequentialist or ownership-based approaches, and arguably gets closer to the heart of the issue. Where the approach is still open, however, is that we still have to justify and balance these interests. There is no simple formula to apply. A need for practical wisdom or Phronesis, in the form of a judicious weighing of moral interests, continues to apply to digital problems posed by ICT.
A research report submitted to the Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Applied ethics for professionals Johannesburg
Whittaker, Louise (2017) An object-oriented approach to the privacy problems posed by digital information and communication technologies, University of the Witwatersrand, <>