Electronic privacy is a controversial concept rising from increasingly frequent use of electronic technology to store records, communicate, and perform business. The rise of computer technology in the late 20th century resulted in a need to define legal rights to electronic privacy in order to prevent fraud, identity theft, copyright issues, and illegal disclosure of confidential information. Although many regions now have laws governing electronic privacy, electronic privacy still remains a source of controversy with considerable issues still under legal and ethical debate. Additionally, as technology continues to evolve, laws are subject to considerable shifts in scope and coverage.
Basic arguments surrounding the issue focus on whether virtual communications, records, and transactions should be subject to the same privacy laws as physical versions, and whether ownership of a computer grants right of access to the owner to all accounts. For instance, some argue that if an employee is using a company computer, the company should have the right to monitor all email, even if it is personal and unrelated to the workplace. Electronic privacy activists argue that a company has no more right to read a private email than they would have to open a letter to an employee that was delivered to the company address. The debate remains largely unsettled, with little clear precedent set by laws or court decisions.
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Supporters of technology-related privacy believe that a computer account is subject to privacy laws, just like personal files or regular mail. In order to gain access to files or electronic data, many privacy supporters think that a legal warrant should be served, just as with physical property. Many supporters also argue that breach of electronic privacy should be punished severely, especially if it is associated with additional crimes such as identity theft.
One landmark piece of privacy legislation was the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, passed by the United States Congress. This law prohibited the unlawful interception of electronic transmissions, including email. Although this was a benchmark for early electronic privacy law, the legislation has several exemptions and specifications which remain controversial and unclear. Similar protection laws in other areas of the world, such as the United Kingdom's Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations of 2003, have been met with similar criticism for vague guidelines.
Electronic privacy is an ongoing legal and ethical debate that may grow only more complicated with increased reliance on technology for transactions and record storage. With few clear definitions of rights pertaining to privacy in the virtual sphere, legal cases citing breach of rights are complex and often lengthy. To best avoid any breach of privacy involving electronics, it is important use high-security computer settings, avoid publishing or sending personal information through the Internet, and to refrain from using any company property for personal use. Until laws become better defined regarding the rights of users in electronic mediums, prevention may be a good way to avoid a problem.