Privacy is dead, long live privacy

By | 2012/04/10

Privacy is dead, long live privacy

I firmly believe that privacy is an evolving concept, significantly altered by each new generation. The expectations of privacy experienced for instance by Baby Boomers is different to the expectations of privacy experienced by Generation-X, which in turn is different to the expectations of privacy experienced by Generation-Y.

Comparing the privacy expectations of each generation is a bit like trying to compare apples and oranges, since privacy is innately tied to three key factors. These are:

  • Personal boundaries;
  • Social justice – in particular, the merger of legally enshrined rights, universal human rights and moral rights;
  • Technology.

The first is an entirely subjective and relative delimiter; what I deem as necessarily private may not be deemed as necessarily private by another person, and so on. What’s more, those personal boundaries are constantly evolving – the boundaries I had as an 18 year old are so far removed from the boundaries I have now I may as well be a different person. I suspect this is similar for many people.

Further, both social justice and technology are themselves constantly evolving items; the social justice and technology of the silent generation was significantly less evolved than that of the baby boomers, which was again significantly less evolved than that of generation X, and so it continues. The enshrinement of rights in particular has been constantly evolving target; women have been granted the vote, interracial marriages are legal, even same-sex marriages are growing in legal recognition throughout the world.

Since the first factor is not only inherently personal, subject to all matter of stimuli, as well as the progression of time, and the other two are also constantly evolving, it would be foolish to assume that privacy in and of itself as a static, constant set of immutable boundaries.

In her address, “Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity“, Danah Boyd said:

No matter how many times a privileged straight white male technology executive pronounces the death of privacy, Privacy Is Not Dead. People of all ages care deeply about privacy. And they care just as much about privacy online as they do offline. But what privacy means may not be what you think.

Danah makes a very interesting distinction in her article, that being between two terms, PII and PEI:

First, you must differentiate between PII and PEI. If you’ve spent any time thinking about privacy, you’ve probably heard of PII – “Personally Identifiable Information.” All too often, we assume that when people make PII available publicly that they don’t care about privacy. While some folks are deeply concerned about PII, PII isn’t the whole privacy story. What many people are concerned about is PEI – “Personally Embarrassing Information.” This is what they’re brokering, battling over, and trying to make sense of.

In fact both PII and PEI are constantly evolving, and the evolution is actually more complex in relation to PEI. After all, personally identifiable information is easier to understand – my sense of privacy, despite all it has changed, remains unalterable in relation to the publication of say, my bank account details, tax file number and ABN. I may make these details available to departments and people on an as-needs basis, but I don’t just throw it out there on the net for anyone to see.

On the other hand, PEI is by its very nature bounded by what the individual will consider to be embarrassing, which comes down to personal levels of liberation and attitude. Some people I know won’t have a photo of them on the net that shows them pulling a funny face. Others will make publicly accessible (i.e,. sans-registration) highly graphic photos and details of their sexual exploits. If it’s not personally embarrassing for them, why should it matter to others? To be perfectly frank, so long as it’s legal and consensual, after all, a person’s sexual proclivities are totally unrelated to their ability to perform a professional function.

A decade ago I’d have found it deeply personally embarrassing to state in any publicly accessible forum that I’m in an open relationship. Yet now, having been in one for over 14 years, I find it such an irrelevant point that frankly I work on the basis of people knowing it. And let’s be frank: if someone goes looking for information that they’d find personally titillating about another person, it says everything about the person seeking the titillation and nothing about the person providing it.

Lately I’ve been accused of being both an optimist and an idealist, and perhaps that’s where my view of privacy, personal details and publicity have come from; I’m tired of seeing people being judged for invalid reasons, and in particular an evolving social justice will see significant leaps of improvement on this front over the coming decades.

Privacy is not something we should give up willingly or readily – we should always be cognisant of where our privacy may be at risk, and there should be substantial obligations set on companies who have access to our personal or private details, and considerable fines for a violation of those obligations. Yet, that being said, privacy is neither a static nor an immutable set of boundaries, and those who seek to keep it such fail to appreciate that the baton is passed with each new generation, with each new piece of technology, and with each evolution of human, moral or legal rights.

2 thoughts on “Privacy is dead, long live privacy

  1. Bipolar Bear

    I think some people are curbed from being as open as they’d like to be online because they know that employers are trolling the web for info about them. Your personal boundaries and morality then become irrelevant, you’re having to self-censor for others because your livelihood is at risk.

    1. PMdG Post author

      That’s undoubtedly true, and it’s a clear example of where privacy needs to be defended. It doesn’t change though that privacy remains a moving target rather than a fixed set of boundaries.

Comments are closed.