Is Privacy the Right Thing to be Talking About?

By: Richard Beaumont | Tuesday, January 14, 2014 | Tagged: Privacy | Leave Comment

Online privacy has never been a bigger issue than it became in 2013, and all the signs are that it is only going to get bigger in 2014. 

Thanks largely to Edward Snowden, the extent of state surveillance by governments in the ‘free’ world has been making front page news.  We have perhaps known for many years that they were capable of watching our every move, but what has been revealed is that they are doing this on a much larger scale than most people would have believed.

The standard argument of course is that, in these troubled times privacy must be balanced against the greater good of ‘security’.  Yet this is increasingly seen by many as a poor excuse for the behaviour of intelligence agencies in what are supposed to be countries that champion freedom and fight tyranny.

Slightly less public, but a big deal for businesses (especially technology companies), lawyers and civil rights groups, we have seen huge debates over the future of data protection law in the EU.  Here the talk has been all about balancing the privacy rights of consumers and citizens, with the freedom of business to innovate (and by extension create much needed economic value).

When asked in numerous surveys, people consistently say they are worried about their privacy, and exploitation of personal information for commercial gain.  Yet those same people also use services from Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and others which are busy amassing huge amounts of data to create ever more detailed interest profiles, just so they can sell us more stuff.  And people do this without reading the privacy policies that govern how those companies use the data.

Here it's all about privacy vs. convenience and ‘free’ services.

And yet…

Privacy is notoriously difficult to define.  It is both highly contextual, and deeply personal.  For any piece of information – how I choose to share it or not may be completely different from another person with the same piece of information.  The behaviour says as much about the person as the information itself.

The reality is that privacy is not an end in itself. Privacy is a state of being.  It is a necessary pre-requisite for freedom, but it actually goes deeper still than that.  Privacy is the cornerstone of our identity as people.  It is integral to the very development of the personality.

What is really at stake when privacy gets eroded is individual autonomy – the ability to control one’s own life – in thought, word and deed.  If I have no privacy – I have no real control over my own existence.

Renowned privacy expert Daniel Solove recent wrote about the 10 reasons why privacy matters.  Most of these seem to me to come back always to this principle of autonomy and self-determination. Also, I recently had a conversation on Twitter where one person made the observation that German data protection law is centred on the concept of ‘informational self-determination’ – a phrase that certainly spoke to me of something deeper than mere privacy.

Seen from this perspective, it seems to me that the whole debate that has been going on about privacy, about balancing the competing interests of the different players – individual, state and business – suddenly becomes much more concrete.

If we start talking about individual autonomy vs. state security or self-determination vs. the freedom of business to innovate, then it seems to me that we will be talking about more fundamental ideas concerning the nature of the society we are living in, than the more nebulous idea of privacy.

I think that if we start to talk more about autonomy and self-determination rather than the privacy that enables it, maybe it will help to get more people thinking more actively about the choices they make, or want to be able to make. And in the long run - that ought to result in better privacy rules because they will be more focused on the ultimate goal rather than the means to achieve it.

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