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Privacy, Power and Vulnerability
By: Marsha Hanen

August 22, 2006


In a recent posting, Val Steeves made the point that women often experience differential power in relation to men when it comes to protection of their privacy, and especially so with respect to choices about the extent to which they are prepared to have parts of their bodies exposed to public view. As Val says, “the fact that there is a relationship between privacy and power is old news”; and certainly the issue of women being treated differently, and usually less well than men along a variety of dimensions has received detailed comment in the feminist literature over at least the past thirty-five years. But I think it is still important in the context of discussions of privacy to take note of this different treatment and the power relations it exposes, not only in connection with women but also in relation to a range of other groups and their members.

For one thing, it helps us to see that privacy does not necessarily carry the same significance, function or value for everyone. An obvious point, perhaps, and yet we still run into all sorts of attempts to characterize privacy based on an assumption that it has a single meaning and function. For another, it helps to highlight the issue of whose privacy, whose power and whose vulnerability is at stake in different situations and how these are to be reconciled.

I have been struck, in the past week or two, by public discussion in British Columbia of a class action suit alleging abuse against former residents of the Woodlands School, a care facility (which closed in 1996) for mentally disabled children. The Globe and Mail (August 11, 2006) reported that “…staff molested children left in their care, forced them into cold showers or scalding baths, locked them in extended isolation and beat them, according to a review commissioned by the government in 2000.” And there are allegations, as well, of serious sexual abuse.

A proposed government compensation package using a points system to quantify the severity of sexual, physical, emotional and psychological abuse has given rise to anger on the part of the victims and their families and charges that the compensation scheme is abusive, inhumane and degrading, forcing vulnerable individuals to relive experiences they found horrific. Their preferred alternative is a “common experience payment” model, which would allow for a lump sum payment to victims without the need for painful testimony to support awarding points based on the government’s perception of the degree of severity of the abuse.

Clearly, this example raises a host of ethical questions relating to issues of privacy and its underlying values of freedom, dignity and respect for persons. If reports of the case are accurate the government claims the points system is a “blueprint” used by Ottawa for such cases and does not agree that there was systemic abuse, as claimed by the “We survived Woodlands” group; but denying reported experiences of widespread abuse may result in placing too high a burden of proof on relatively powerless individuals, and raises serious questions about government accountability. What is more, the issues of protection of privacy and recognition of human dignity may require especially great sensitivity and attention to detail where vulnerable groups or individuals are involved.

Another B.C. class action suit, concluded in 2004, involved residents of a facility for the deaf. The settlement agreement, achieved through a mediation process in that case of sexual abuse of persons who attended Jericho Hill School between 1950 and 1992, provided for compensation at several levels (depending upon documented abuse). It also provided for a five-year Well-Being/Counseling Program, advocacy for further literacy support and education, training in American Sign Language, plaques to commemorate the experiences of the former students, a scholarship program and public acknowledgment of the abuse by government (see www.jhsclassaction.com).

Although the levels of compensation scheme used in this case might be described as analogous to a points system, much depends upon the details of the process and its implementation: how the facts of each case are determined, what care is taken to provide help to victims to understand the process and intended outcomes and to make their claims, whether arbitrary categorizations are avoided, the extent to which victims are provided an opportunity to tell their stories in a safe environment, how and to what extent individual privacy is protected and a host of similar factors.

In addition, on the privacy side there is the fundamental question as to what methods it is ethically legitimate to use to find the victims in the first place, in order to present them with the available choices, and whether the ends of finding them in order to make benefits available would justify whatever means are deemed necessary, even if such means go beyond what we might regard as acceptable in other situations. Increasingly sophisticated technologies increase the likelihood of privacy invasion; and these issues about how class members are located raise, as do most privacy related problems, both epistemological questions (How accurate is our information? What do we do when errors are found?) and ethical ones (Who has access to the information? How carefully is it protected? How sensitive are we to the special needs of persons who have been mistreated?).

Sadly, there are numerous kinds of situations in which the issue of abuse of vulnerable persons – children, disabled persons, people with few material resources or little power in society, individuals with certain medical problems, former residents of residential schools and others needs to be dealt with. We can hardly argue that these cases are few and far between – not that the existence of even a single case would be justifiable. The sooner we learn to base our response to such situations on ethical principles that give voice to respect for the dignity of all, including protection of privacy, the more likely we are to avoid the kind of reaction that we have been seeing to the case of the Woodlands School.

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