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Exploring Privacy and Difference PDF Print
Exploring Privacy and Difference
By: Marsha Hanen

January 10, 2006


An article in the New York Times for January 1, 2006 by John Schwartz entitled “What Are You Lookin’ At?” points out that people view privacy in very different ways. Schwartz suggests that the public reaction to breaches of commercial security, such as the ChoicePoint debacle has been a “collective shrug,” as people feel they have no power to do anything about such situations. But does this mean that individuals are becoming less concerned than before about preserving their privacy? Or is it just that they believe that, in a networked world, individuals have no control over information about them that exists in cyberspace?

Evidence often cited for the thesis that people are unconcerned about privacy is the fact that many young people seem to feel no compunction about posting highly personal information on blogs accessible to millions. But perhaps these same young people would be less cavalier if they discovered that their blogs were being read by sexual predators or, for that matter, their own parents, or if they were to lose control over information they did wish to keep private. Even for young people, it matters who has access to information about them, and which information about them is widely accessible. As well, the proliferation of privacy legislation and complaints about invasions of privacy argues that many people remain profoundly interested in preserving as much personal privacy as possible.

That we have different attitudes about privacy is not surprising. For one thing, the long history of attempts to characterize privacy, useful though it has been, has not resulted in a clear, generally accepted understanding of the nature of privacy, and the notion of privacy remains contested. There may be a number of reasons for this – technological change, changing attitudes about what is personal, socio-economic, cultural and status factors, particularly those which make individuals or groups vulnerable to degrading or dehumanizing treatment by governments or businesses or social agencies, the effects of media attention and the cult of celebrity. Many of our expectations of privacy change with time. For example, our expectations of physical privacy are much greater than would have been the expectations of most of our grandparents. Along other dimensions, we have lesser expectations: pretty clearly the privacy that was accorded to political figures such as Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy with regard to their sexual infidelities would be unlikely to prevail now. On the other hand, public figures now do not feel the need to hide physical disabilities or medical problems as they once did: such situations are no longer thought to disqualify people from public office. Geography also plays a role: there are societies and parts of the world where people have little or no expectation of privacy in the respects in which we do.

In another area, many people express enhanced concerns for security which, they believe, should trump privacy. But those who find themselves subject to eavesdropping on their electronic communications owing primarily to a particular racial or ethnic profile have a legitimate concern about privacy, notwithstanding the importance of security in a post 9/11 world.

Although philosophers usually think that defining privacy must precede considerations of its value, it is difficult in practice to fully separate the two. It may even be useful to think about this the other way round: if we value privacy differently, perhaps that is because we have differing understandings of what it involves. We value privacy for many reasons, perhaps most importantly as a way of supporting personal autonomy and liberty, and providing respect for individuals without discrimination. But the experience of many people – women in a variety of situations, individuals in need, persons who belong to groups believed to be dangerous, or which are the subject of hatred, and many others who are socially or culturally or economically vulnerable – is one of having their privacy needs ignored or devalued, sometimes for bureaucratic reasons, sometimes through being targeted as dangerous in some way, sometimes through being viewed, even if only implicitly, as less worthy, or less “mainstream” than others. Some will seek privacy and some reject it, depending upon the values being served, and often the degree to which we have control over what is known about us matters more than a determination as to whether privacy is, in itself, a good or bad thing. Thus, whether discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is prohibited in human rights codes (and the codes are enforced) may make the difference between a gay person’s claiming or rejecting privacy.

One way of thinking about the contextual nature of privacy derives from the thirty-year tradition of feminist epistemology. Some of this work has argued that, in trying to understand the concept of knowledge, it matters not just what is known, but also who is doing the knowing. Similarly, discussions about privacy need to take into account the question of whose privacy is under consideration: not only may different individuals value privacy differently, but the communities to which they belong may value it differently as well. And there may be good reasons for these differences in valuation, rooted in differing experiences.

Feminists have long been concerned about the public/private dichotomy which for centuries placed women in the private sphere and men in the public. Because there was a belief that what was important was in the public realm, women’s experience was systematically devalued and denigrated, as Virginia Woolf made clear in A Room of One’s Own. Although much has changed since these insights were first articulated, the experience of many people is still treated as not mainstream and therefore as less important and sometimes less deserving of privacy (and other protections) than that of members of the dominant culture.

The hallmark of these situations is that the personhood and preferences of the individual whose privacy or lack of it is under consideration are given slight weight. Put another way, vulnerable individuals or groups often have the experience that their unique needs are thought unimportant, as is the claim that they are entitled as much as others to exercise control over what is known about them.

Are there, then, considerations which might help us to think specifically about ways of understanding and protecting the privacy of vulnerable persons as much as that of less vulnerable members of society? It strikes me that we need more subtle and less abstract analyses than we have at present of those situations in which privacy needs to be protected, and ways in which this can be done. Anita Allen’s work has been a beacon on the subject of women’s privacy. Perhaps a way into further analyses of privacy is through a form of practical reasoning that utilizes a more complex appreciation of the experiences of those different, in various ways, from ourselves.

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