Saturday, May 15, 2010

The value of privacy

I've been reading a book by Daniel J Solove called "The Future of Reputation: gossip, rumor and privacy on the Internet". With the privacy concerns around Facebook now making mainstream news, it's interesting to take stock of just what it is that makes privacy important. Solove has helped clarify that for me.

I would put it like this: privacy is an acknowledgement that humanity - both individuals and society - is imperfect in many ways, and it is a means by which people can cope with that imperfection.

Privacy enables people to hide character defects from others. This sounds like something that shouldn't be done, but it's actually necessary to some degree if we're ever going to make friends with anyone. As Solove says (p66-67): "When intimate personal information circulates among a small group of people who know us well, its significance can be weighed against other aspects of our personality and character. By contrast, when intimate information is removed from its original context and revealed to strangers, we are vulnerable to being misjudged on the basis of our most, embarrassing, and therefore most memorable, tastes and preferences". Privacy prevents us from being judged by people unfamiliar with us solely on the basis of our sensationalistic flaws.

Even if people have perfect information about us, this is no guarantee that their judgements will be fair or accurate. People are irrational beings, by and large, and privacy enables people to hide information about themselves that might lead to stereotyping and prejudice - sexuality and mental illness are some historical examples. Even in cases where a judgement might be accurate - employers discovering if a potential employee has a greater predilection to a fatal illness like cancer is the example Solove gives (p71) - then it's still possible to view this judgement as unfair. Is it fair to deny employment to an individual because they're statistically more likely to get cancer? Should disclosure of such medical information be protected by law? I suspect that in many if not most cases it already is.

Privacy permits violation of social norms. Again, this sounds bad but isn't necessarily so. It is an acknowledgement that there can be conflict between what society demands of an individual and what an individual desires for themself, and a recognition that sometimes the desires of the individual should take precedence. Solove puts it thus (p72): "Most of us desire a limited realm where we might have reprieve from the judgment of others, which otherwise might become suffocating".

Finally privacy helps us to overcome our individual imperfections and grow as human beings. It does this firstly by providing the opportunity to hide our pasts, giving us the opportunity to break free of them, in essence letting us have a second chance at life. Solove again (p73): "Protection against disclosure permits room to change, to define oneself and one's future without becoming 'a prisoner of one's recorded past'".

It does this secondly through group privacy, or the opportunity to have different identities among different people. This is not dishonest, but simply an acknowledgement of the complexity of human beings, that "when you play various roles you're not being artificial or phony. These roles let you accentuate different aspects of yourself" (Arnold Lugwig quoted in Solove, p69). This roleplay enables personal growth, because "people even play roles in which they seem improperly cast, hoping to grow into the part. One plays a role until it fits, becoming transformed in the process." (Solove, p68) This is not possible without privacy.

It would be very easy to go through this list and point out instances where privacy should not apply, and Solove recognises as much, explicitly calling for a balance between the benefits of privacy and the benefits that disclosure of information about others can bring. But in a time when it's not uncommon to hear the claim that privacy is dead, I want to point out just what is being lost if privacy is lost altogether, and question whether our society, and the people within it, can cope.

Is there any society in which nobody has any imperfections that they legitimately do not want disclosed to others? In which nobody ever judges anybody else in a way that is unfair or inaccurate? In which people never have any need to violate the existing norms of society in even the mildest, slightest way? In which nobody ever needs to develop themselves personally beyond the labels already placed upon them by the society around them? I don't think there is. And I don't think there ever will be.

As long as humanity is imperfect, we will need something that performs the functions that privacy currently performs. If we are indeed losing our privacy, then we need to do one of two things. We need to come up with something that currently does for us what privacy had done for us in previous years, and fast. Or else we need to get our privacy back. And fast.

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