Why privacy is less nebulous than it’s sometimes made out to be

August 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

This guest post is by Walter van Holst.

The complexities of the notion of privacy

Two recurring themes in conversations about privacy and personal data are that privacy is such an abstract concept, and that public data can’t be personal data. The former is a myth, the latter a misunderstanding, sometimes an understandable one. A recommended reading on the false dichotomy between public and private or personal is danah boyd over at Medium.com.¬†She’s a recommended reading anyway, although I disagree with the complexity of privacy as a whole. It ultimately boils down to the notion of agency: how many degrees of freedom do I have left. And not in the hard, non-coercive, sense of the word freedom. Do I feel like I can freely research Jihadist literature on the internet? To look up a medical condition via a search engine? To communicate with someone who is a well-known investigative journalist? Information empowers, which is both a good and a bad thing. Good because it can mitigate existing power differentials and prevent new ones from happening. Bad because it can amplify existing ones or even create new ones.

Where is open or personal data in this mix?

Open data has always been as much about the mitigation and prevention of power differentials as about innovation. In a sense privacy is about the same core values. That this core value is expressed and enshrined in law differently over time and in different cultural contexts is what makes it complex in practice. In the USA, the starting point is the right to be left alone, born from the injustices of British colonial rule. In Europe the core concept is more that of informational privacy, born from the injustices brought about by Nazi and Stalinist rule. Quite unsurprisingly given the way law develops over time, a lot of privacy law has a philosophical underpinning that is dodgy at best. Property, a core concept in any society more complicated than hunter-gatherers, lacked a sound underpinning till the advent of game theory and its application to economics. From that perspective, privacy already is a remarkably mature concept. And speaking about property: for the love of all that is right, let’s stop framing personal data in terms of ownership!

Image credit: AFP

Image credit: AFP

Your personal data is very much like your shadow in that it both reflects you as a person but can also give a distorted reflection of yourself. Your shadow can take on a life on its own, like in the Indonesian Wayang puppet theatre, including all the drama that ensues in that art form. Personal data is data about a person, not owned by that person. Privacy is more than personal data, but in the context of an information society in which everything becomes data, personal data will become more synonymous with privacy than it already is. And we will become very boring people if we are not wary about this and regain the territory that has been lost already!

Image credit: WSJ/Tim Robinson

Image credit: WSJ/Tim Robinson


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