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A Self-narrative Approach to the Deeply Personal
By: David Matheson

April 17, 2007

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In less than a couple of weeks, I’ll be attending the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference in Montreal to participate in a workshop presentation with other members of the project. The theme of the discussion is the reasonable expectation of privacy. This morning I’d like to give a snapshot of what I’ll be contributing.

Let me start off by noting what seem to be two very general conditions on the reasonable expectation of privacy in informational contexts. First, it seems obvious that in order for someone to have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to a piece of information, she can’t have voluntarily exposed it in a general manner. When I walk across the quad on my university’s campus in broad daylight during a busy term weekday, there’s an obvious sense in which I’m voluntarily exposing lots of information about myself: I know that if I walk across the quad, various people are likely to cast an occasional glance in my direction and thereby acquire visual information about my present appearance, location, activity, etc.; and I’m okay with that, so I walk. But no one would say that I have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to it, since I’ve voluntarily exposed it – made it known or at least easily knowable – to whomever happens to be in the area.

Second, in order for an individual to have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to a bit of information, it must be personal information of a certain sort about her. To say that information is personal is to say, at the very least, that it is about persons. The information that lightning is a rapid discharge of electrons, say, or that the average annual rainfall in Montevideo is 1100mm, is not personal because it’s not about persons – at all. Moreover personal information, in the usual sense, must be personal information about specific persons. Consider, for example, the following pieces of information, all of which are about persons: that Canada has a population of over 30 million, that all people have certain inalienable rights, and that recent polls show that a majority of Americans favor national anti-obesity programs. Despite being about persons, these bits of information are not about specific persons, and hence don’t count as pieces of personal information in the usual sense.

But not just any personal information counts. In order for an individual to have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to a bit of personal information, it must be personal information of the right sort. For consider the following examples of personal information about me: that I am self-identical (to borrow an example from earlier exchanges on this blog with Steven Davis), that it is logically impossible for me to be a circle, and that my rate of free-fall is the same as that of a small pebble. Even if we admit these as examples of personal information, because they are about specific individuals, no one would be inclined to say that they are of the right sort of personal information to be covered by the reasonable expectation of privacy. They can be rationally inferred about specific individuals merely on the basis of nonpersonal pieces of information such as logical or scientific laws.

Let’s call personal information of the right sort – of the sort with respect to which one can have a reasonable expectation of privacy – “deeply personal information.” Accordingly, we can say that in order for an individual to have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to a bit of information, she must not have voluntarily exposed it and it must be deeply personal information about her.

I want to resist the suggestion that deeply personal information is to be distinguished by means of its sensitivity. The basic idea of this suggestion is that deeply personal information is sensitive personal information, i.e. personal information that individuals don’t want widely known by others. Sensitivity in this sense, according to certain privacy theorists, might come in one of two basic forms. The personal information in question might be sensitive because the person it is specifically about does not want it widely known by others. It might also be sensitive because it is the sort of information that most members of her society don’t want widely known about themselves.

The reason I want to resist this suggestion is two-fold. First, consider the problem of hypersensitivity. This has to do with the fact that some people can be excessively sensitive about information, including personal information that is not deeply personal. Suppose, to illustrate, that for one bizarre reason or another I happen to be very sensitive about the information that I am self-identical, that it is logically impossible for me to be a circle, or that my rate of free-fall is the same as that of a small pebble. It’s quite silly of me to be sensitive about this sort of rationally inferable information, but, nonetheless, let's suppose, I am. And since it’s sensitive information specifically about me, it turns out to be deeply personal information on the sensitivity approach. But that seems wrong. Whether personal information about me is deeply personal in the relevant sense can’t surely depend simply on my sensitivities, which may stray quite wildly away from the realm of where they ought to be.

There’s also the problem of hyposensitivity. This arises because some people can be excessively insensitive about information, even deeply personal information about themselves. We all know that sort of person who opens up at the drop of a hat and shares all sorts of intimate details about themselves to anyone with open ears. Encountering that sort of person is disconcerting, because we want to say that they shouldn’t be sharing so much deeply personal information with us, total strangers.

Of course, an advocate of the sensitivity approach could agree with us here, and point out that the reason the information such a person shares is deeply personal is that it’s the sort of personal information that most members of their society don’t normally want widely known by others. It may not be sensitive personal information for them, but it is for most of their society, and so it is in fact deeply personal.

But it’s not too hard to think of cases in which even the sensitivities of most members of society are deficient. Suppose that the government, or even a large corporation – call it Big Brother – embarks on a propaganda campaign, for one bad reason or another, to convince most members of society not to be sensitive about the intimate details of their sexual and romantic lives, their medical statuses, their on-line activities, etc. Suppose further that the campaign is very successful. We get the result that virtually no one in society cares how widely such personal information about themselves is known by others. Does the very success of the propaganda campaign absolve Big Brother, who then goes on to get his hands on such details about many members of society, from the charge that he’s inappropriately gotten his epistemic hands on deeply personal information of many members of society? Surely not. The right thing to say of this sort of scenario seems to be that Big Brother has, wrongly and sadly, convinced most members of society not to care about large swaths of what remains their deeply personal information.

So if we don’t characterize the nature of deeply personal information along the lines of the sensitivity approach, what’s the alternative? It seems to me that one plausible alternative, at any rate, can be gleaned from paying careful attention to the language that the Supreme Court has employed in such well-known cases as R. v. Plant (1993) and R. v. Tessling (2004). Deeply personal information, the Court says, is what lies at the “biographical core” of personal information, and information whose disclosure may affect the “dignity, integrity, and autonomy” of the individual it is about.

This suggests two very important points about the nature of deeply personal information. First, deeply personal information has something to do with what might be described as the telling of a story about an individual’s life – that’s the “biographical” bit. Second, it also has to do with the individual’s telling her own story, for herself and on her own terms – with “dignity, integrity and autonomy.”

The narrative language of “biography” and the “telling of one’s own story” may be largely metaphorical, but I believe it captures a very familiar element of our day-to-day experience. We are all, everyday, telling stories about ourselves to others in the sense of revealing to (and concealing from) others different pieces of information about ourselves in different contexts. And the capacity to do so in accord with our own considered convictions about who should know what about us in which context is crucial, I think, to our dignity, integrity and autonomy as persons.

We can bring these points together into something like the following (call it) “self-narrative” approach to the nature of deeply personal information. On this approach, deeply personal information is personal information open access to which would seriously undermine the individual’s ability to tell her own unique story. (When I talk about “open access” here, I mean more or less unrestricted access for the public at large, i.e. access for pretty much any member of society who cares to learn the relevant information, regardless of whether the individual that the information is about has voluntarily exposed it.)

To evaluate the plausibility of the self-narrative approach, consider its application to cases already mentioned. The rationally inferable information that I am self-identical, that it is logically impossible for me to be a circle, or that my rate of free-fall is the same as that of a small pebble, despite being about a specific individual, is not deeply personal information. Does the self-narrative approach give us that result? It would seem so. It is very difficult to see how open access to any of these pieces of personal information about me would seriously undermine my ability to tell my own unique story. After all, none of these pieces of information could itself be used to distinguish me from others in any significant way. That it is logically impossible for me to be a circle is certainly about me in particular, but exactly the same sort of information can be known to apply to every other individual in society, simply by rational inference from non-personal information. That’s also true of the information that I am myself or that my rate of free-fall is the same as that of a small pebble. Everyone is self-identical. Everyone’s rate of free-fall is the same as that of a small pebble.

Recall now the Big Brother example. On the sensitivity approach, the very success of Big Brother’s campaign absolves him from the charge of wrongfully getting his epistemic hands on loads of deeply personal information about members of his society. But, as we noted, that seems wrong. On the self-narrative approach, however, we get a more intuitively sound verdict. Big Brother can properly be charged with inappropriately getting his hands on deeply personal information, because the mere success of his propaganda campaign – the mere fact that he’s convinced most members of society not to be sensitive about intimate details of their sexual and romantic lives, medical statuses, on-line activities, etc. – does not suffice to render those details non-deeply personal. Open access to such details would seriously undermine the ability of the individuals concerned to tell their own unique stories: where there is open access, individuals lack control over those details, which constitute precisely the sort of personal information whereby they could significantly distinguish themselves from others. And the fact that open access would seriously undermine their ability in this way remains regardless of whether they are sensitive about the details.
 
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