What is Privacy? Why Does It Matter?
Privacy has been defined in many different ways.
Warren and Brandeis spoke of it as “the right to be left alone”.
Alan Westin speaks of informational self-determination – “The right of the individual to decide what information about himself should be communicated to others and under what circumstances”
Privacy may be (and indeed has been in some jurisdictions) located within a human rights framework. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “[n]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” Similarly, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 17, states that “[n]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.”
Questions about what privacy is and what functions it performs have been asked with increasing frequency in the past decade. While Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have opined that “[t]hose who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” the fact is that these formulations of privacy are increasingly being positioned as diametrically opposed to security and sacrificed for the purpose of safety and security.
In a germinal 2012 paper, Julie Cohen argues that our previous formulations of privacy are overly restricted and ultimately reductive – that such definitions reduce privacy to a form of defence against interference and consequently an instrument that protects autonomy and dignity. For Cohen, privacy is more fundamental that this – it is, quite simply, what enables the development of the subjective self.
Jathan Sadowski, discussing the importance of understanding privacy in an age of increasing surveillance, applies Cohen to argue:
Privacy is not just something we enjoy. It is something that is necessary for us to: develop who we are; form an identity that is not dictated by the social conditions that directly or indirectly influence our thinking, decisions, and behaviors; and decide what type of society we want to live in. Whether we like it or not constant data collection about everything we do -- like the kind conducted by Facebook and an increasing number of other companies -- shapes and produces our actions. We are different people when under surveillance than we are when enjoying some privacy. And Cohen's argument illuminates how the breathing room provided by privacy is essential to being a complete, fulfilled person.
Thus, when we discuss invasions or violations of privacy, we must always examine not just what has happened, but also the potential impact of the event and the subjectivity put at risk by such events.