Computerised Monitoring and Online Privacy

J.D. Hendry (Cumbria County Council)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 1 July 2000




Hendry, J.D. (2000), "Computerised Monitoring and Online Privacy", Library Review, Vol. 49 No. 5, pp. 252-260.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

I wish to be convinced that there is a more friendly phrase, completely lacking in jargon, to describe Human‐Computer Interaction (HCI), a syndrome which Thomas Peters points out has become an everyday aspect of many people’s lives; one in which computers “are being woven into human experience”. So if we traditionalists of standard English can swallow hard and brace ourselves, we may be able to accept Peters’ premise, “that computerisation has forever changed … fundamental human activities. We have begun to perform them in cyberspace – a sense of place without physical space created when human beings interact with a computer system. At the dawn of a new century and Millennium, it appears that an increasing part of human existence will be realised in online environments”.

If we can accept these fundamental premises about the impact of ICT, then we can continue into this fascinating, almost surreal work. The author aims to examine four separate aspects of Human‐Computer Interaction: information‐seeking environments; formal learning environments; workplace computerised performance monitoring; and Internet monitoring, especially the Web.

At the heart of this book, this project, which identifies an overall project to use computers to monitor HCI is privacy. Even in cyberspace, perhaps especially in cyberspace, we need to address the contradiction between automation and the private, even vulnerable human condition. The whole process conjures up images of an omniscient Big Brother watching our every move, to the extent that these involve the use of computers. As Peters points out, governments and large corporations are interested in how people behave in cyberspace. Not only to detect hackers, slackers, criminals and malefactors, but to learn the characterisation of “normal” human behaviour. Thus, as the population moves increasingly online, governments can continue to govern, and corporations to continue to organise work and conduct commercial activities. But this review has to ask two basic questions. Why do we need to monitor such human interaction? And ought we to be doing so? I hold to the belief that whatever books and borrowing behaviour users of libraries have, these are confidential matters and should be confidential. Likewise on‐line searching behaviour of users of on‐line public access catalogues. Where do we draw a line in terms of individual human rights in cyberspace? I fear we are entering deep waters here. Peters believes that commercial interests are now driving the development of software tools to support monitoring activities relating to HCI, especially in relation to the Web.

The work itself is in 14 chapters and covers themes such as: definition; participants and interested parties; ethical and moral issues; legal implications; research projects monitoring HCI; and an intriguing chapter entitled “Cookies, Applets and Shopping Baskets”. There are also five relevant appendices. It is very much a child of its time and place, for example Legal matters relate exclusively to the USA.

Peters concludes in his final chapter: “We should not assume that the forms of knowledge people develop to survive and thrive in the real world will be the knowledge that will develop as cyberspace is colonised and matures.” Further, he expresses the hope that computerised monitoring of online environments may be able to develop forms of knowledge about human beings that do not involve identifying specific individuals by name. As a new century, and a new Millennium emerge, we shall see. I rather fear, however, that what emerges may not be for our comfort.

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