Data Ethics Philosophy and ethics of big data  
    LinkedIn     YouTube     email     Homepage ethics workshop business ethics workshop philosophy and economics
Contact Tab

What's at Stake with Privacy?

      Privacy is about identity; the reason privacy is worth having is because you need it to be, and also to become someone.  

Leontine Young, Life Among the Giants


Why do we need privacy to be someone?

Everyone has paused before tapping the submit button. Maybe it's the messaging screen on Tinder, or the compose screen on Gmail. Regardless, there's indecision: words are waiting to be sent to a stranger, or to a daughter, or to a friend, or a boss, or someone and, just before irrevocably transmitting, there's a stop to consider. You're deciding: Do I really want to send this?


The duration is the time of privacy and identity.


Whatever those words are, you need a moment for them to be not sent. You need to be alone with them to weigh whether you want to be the person those words will create.



Julie Cohen, What Privacy Is For



  • Using Tinder, you wait for a moment before sending because you need to take a breath and decide whether you're the kind of person who sparks an encounter with a financier who loves money.
  • Using Gmail, you hesitate before sending because you need to choose whether you're the kind of employee who'll promise to fabricate a time sheet for a supervisor who missed a shift.
Regardless of the outcome, we hesitate because we understand that our identity – the person who uses our name – depends on the decision.


And the decision depends on privacy. If someone peers over your shoulder while you're considering, it's not just an annoyance, it's someone else getting involved. Because they’re distorting your thinking, the decision no longer belongs to you alone.


The situation mirrors the diabolical instruction to Be spontaneous! As soon as someone says that, following the instruction becomes impossible: before you even start, you're already not being spontaneous. The same goes for identity, the moment someone is looking, watching your thumb hesitate on Tinder, reading your Gmail, you're no longer deciding entirely for yourself.


So, what gets put at stake with privacy is your ability to decide for yourself who you are.


Privacy, identity and masks

Another connection between privacy and identity traces the word "person" back to its Latin origins, where it connects with persona in the theatrical sense, like a mask.


To an extent, our identity is always a mask: I’m a father in the morning, an employee in the afternoon, a husband in the evening.


If you think about identity in this masking way, then in order to develop a new role - in order to evolve or become someone different - you need a rehearsal space where you can test the new persona without fear of ridicule or abuse.


Everyone has retreated to these private spaces for personal experimentation. It could be:

  • In a quiet basement, the student contemplating doing stand-up comedy runs a few routines past his friends. (Maybe they laugh heartily.)
  • Around a dinner table, the woman considering adhering to the Jewish faith confides in her family. (Maybe they support her.)
  • In front of a mirror, a man speaks a marriage proposal. (Maybe he can’t convince himself of his own words.)
  • Along the rail of a quiet bar, a lawyer considering running for a judgeship shares the aspiration with the firm's senior partners. (Maybe they keep drinking and change the subject.)

There's no end to the identities we may want to try, and will only try if we’re afforded a private rehearsal, an opportunity to try the role with access strictly limited.


So, just as we can’t decide who we are without privacy, so too we can’t develop into someone else.


Conclusion: Privacy & Identity

  Privacy is required to be someone, and to become someone else.  

Privacy: Someone, anyone, no one

Theoretically, there are two zero-privacy extremes; they correspond with the individual who is anyone, and who is no one.


At the surveillance extreme where you’re constantly observed and never able to limit access to yourself, you tend toward being anyone: always under observation, you’re squeezed into conformity, into the conventional and indistinguishable.


At the solitude extreme where you’re unable to disclose anything about yourself, you’ll be no one: never able to reveal a desire, a fear, an aspiration, there’ll be no way to become unique, to be different from others.


Identity only exists where privacy exists.


Alan Westin, Privacy and Freedom


Footnote: Other values of privacy

In the context of data ethics, privacy is first about identity, before it radiates out to other aspects of experience..


Most generally, privacy holds ethical value for a range of reasons.

  • It may be considered intrinsically valuable, something worth having on its own.
  • It may be conceived as a mediated value: something that gets you to something else.
    • Utilitarians value happiness most highly, and privacy can help. (It’s agreeable to change clothes without someone leering.)
    • Kant valued dignity, and privacy contributes: the public exposure of everything you do in a day would prove debasing.
    • Libertarians value freedom, and privacy is liberating: If someone knows your deepest secrets and fears, they may manipulate you with public exposure, or psychological torment.




Ethics Workshop ©
CC License