UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

In search of the common good : the ethics of disclosing personal information held in public archives MacNeil, Heather Marie


The right to privacy is the right of individuals to determine, within reasonable limits, the extent to which they are known to others. Over the last twenty years the enormous increase in the amount of personal information on citizens maintained in government record-keeping systems has led to increasing public concern for information privacy. Computer technology has contributed to the collection, preservation and use of massive bodies of highly detailed personal information documenting individual characteristics as well as a broad range of social transactions. Automated record-keeping systems permit the linking of personal information from a wide variety of government data banks, a capability which, civil libertarians fear, is vulnerable to abuse. The social contract underlying relations between citizens and the state requires that individuals surrender some measure of privacy in return for physical and social protection. But how far does that contract extend? Does the social contract which, implicitly, governs the collection of personal information in the interests of administering various social benefits, also entitle archivists, as the official keepers of government records, to permit subsequent uses of that information once its administrative usefulness has been exhausted? Social researchers, including social historians, take an affirmative position, arguing that the closure of records containing personal information is a violation of the principle of freedom of enquiry or the scholar's right to pursue and to communicate knowledge in the interest of a greater societal good. The question is, does freedom of enquiry possess the same moral value as the right to privacy? In situations where the two values conflict, where does the archivist's moral duty lie? The thesis will address these questions by examining the ethical justifications for and against research uses of personal information and the social role the archivist plays in mediating the competing moral claims for privacy and access. The thesis concludes that, in a democratic society, the right to privacy supersedes the scholar's freedom of enquiry. In situations where the two values conflict, archivists, as the public trustees of the record, must act on behalf of that public to ensure that the right to privacy is not violated.

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