understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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Too Much Privacy
By: David Matheson


February 1, 2005

Here's a little puzzle drawn from the Harvard law professor Charles Fried. (See, e.g., his article, "Privacy," Yale Law Journal 77 (1968): 475-93.) Imagine the sole inhabitant of an uncharted island -- we'll call her Aria. Aria desperately wants others to know various facts about her, even loads of personal facts, because without this knowledge by others she can't participate in important relationships like friendship, love, and intimacy. Sadly, though, her solitary circumstances frustrate Aria's desire: no one else knows anything about her or her predicament, and no one is ever likely to.

It can hardly be denied that talk of Aria's privacy is odd. In the normal course of events, we probably wouldn't attribute privacy to her unless we were making some sort of joke. Yet one natural account of privacy, which I happen to favor, holds that the fewer personal facts that others know about an individual, the greater that individual's privacy. Why, then, should it be so odd to attribute privacy to Aria? After all, she has exclusive knowledge of all her personal facts. That's the puzzle.

One way to resolve the puzzle, advocated by Fried himself, is to dump that (supposedly) natural account of privacy. It's just not true, one might respond, that the fewer personal facts that others know about an individual, the greater her privacy.

I think this response is a mistake. The correct solution to the puzzle, in my opinion, comes with the realization that although Aria does in fact have privacy -- an extreme amount of it -- she doesn't have a reasonable amount. And the explanation of why it's so odd to talk about her privacy is that typically our talk of "privacy" is really talk about a reasonable amount of privacy. One can fail to have a reasonable amount of privacy by virtue of having too little. But one can also fail to have a reasonable amount by virtue of having too much. Aria's situation is a nice (albeit exaggerated) illustration of the latter.

I don't suppose that anyone will find the bare claim that one can fail to have a reasonable amount of privacy by virtue of having too much particularly surprising or contentious. But I suspect that when we think about cases in which this happens, we typically think about cases in which either (a) an individual has too much privacy because she has voluntarily made certain personal facts about herself so easily knowable by others that it would be fitting for them to know those facts even though they don't (consider, for example, the person who freely but imprudently posts all sorts of personal facts about herself on the Web, and yet luckily happens not to have many others acquire knowledge of those facts because they haven't gotten around to visiting the relevant section of cyberspace) or (b) an individual has too much privacy because his illicit actions give others the right to know personal facts about him even though they don't manage to acquire the knowledge (think of the criminal who leaves compelling evidence of his crime, but somehow manages to prevent official investigators from learning various corroborating personal facts about, say, his whereabouts and activity on the night of the crime). One interesting feature of my response to the puzzle about Aria is that it points to a third sort of case in which (c) an individual has too much privacy because she has certain desires -- for participation in relations like friendship, love and intimacy, for example -- that any sane, mature human could be expected to have, but cannot satisfy those desires because other individuals can't know enough personal facts about her.

I'm inclined to think that more realistic varieties of this third sort of case, (c), deserve our attention. To take just one example, suppose that there are strong social conventions that make it very embarrassing for me to make known to people other than my physician certain facts about my medical status. It might nonetheless be a necessary condition on my psychological well-being that I be able to share those facts with the others: I might want and very much need to have intimate acquaintances who know the facts, but the conventions (combined with my fear of embarrassment) might prevent satisfaction of the want and need. In such a situation it's plausible to say that I've got too much privacy along the lines of (c). And this needn't call for my learning to live with it. It might rather call for an erosion of the social conventions that prevent my privacy's diminishment.

I don't want to give the impression that I'm unconcerned about the manifold ways in which existence in a networked society like our own can leave an individual with too little privacy. They are manifold, and they are in many cases very frightening. But I do think it would be unfortunate if the concern about too little privacy caused us to turn a blind eye to the problems involved in possessing too much privacy.
 
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