“Stop Thinking About Consent: It Isn’t Possible and It Isn’t Right”

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For a philosopher, Helen Nissenbaum is a surprisingly active participant in shaping how we collect, use, and protect personal data. Nissenbaum, who earned her PhD from Stanford, is a professor of information science at Cornell Tech, New York City, where she focuses on the intersection of politics, ethics, and values in technology and digital media — the hard stuff. Her framework for understanding digital privacy has deeply influenced real-world policy.

In addition to several books and countless papers, she’s also coauthored privacy plug-ins for web browsers including TrackMeNot, AdNauseum, and Adnostic. Nissenbaum views these pieces of code as small efforts at rationalizing a marketplace where opaque consent agreements give consumers little bargaining power against data collectors as they extract as much information, and value from this information, as they can. Meanwhile, these practices offer an indefinite value proposition to consumers while compromising the integrity of digital media, social institutions, and individual security.

That way they would never know

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Some 702 intimate examinations were done on sedated or anaesthetised patients (table 3). In only 24% of these examinations had written consent been obtained, and a further 24% of examinations were conducted apparently without written or oral consent.

This 2003 study at an “English medical school” determined that vaginal/rectal examinations were routinely carried out on anaesthetised patients without their knowledge or consent. “I was told in the second year that the best way to learn to do [rectal examinations] was when the patient was under anaesthetic,” one fourth year student responded, to the survey, “That way they would never know.”

Well ain’t that a thing.