Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Value of Privacy

Perhaps the most important legacy of Foucault and Postmodernism is to have made the business of critique much more difficult and complicated than it was back in the days when all workers wore white hats and all capitalists black. Today one has become wary of seeing any cultural, social, or political value as simply good in itself and worthy of protection, without investigating the extent to which it participates, however unwittingly, in a larger regime of power, inequality, and exploitation. Hegel had long ago pointed out that the master and the slave need each other. Each helps to make the other who he/she is. They work together in order to construct and maintain a certain regime of knowledge and power without which neither of them could exist. Postmodernism, of course, does not share Hegel’s optimism that contradictions will be resolved by progress, or even Marx’s faith in revolution. If critique is still to be possible, then it cannot take the easy route of singling out the bad guys, but must lay bare the many complex interdependencies that together constitute a society in its entirety. That this is a hard lesson to learn is illustrated by the lengthy report of the Committee on Privacy in the Information Age established by the National Research Council Engaging Privacy and Information Technology in a Digital Age (edited by J. Waldo, H. S. Lin, L. I. Millett, 2007).  Admittedly, the Committee does not understand its mission to be the elaboration of critical social theory. Nonetheless, it aims to “raise awareness of the spider web of connectedness among the actions we take, the policies we pass, the expectations we change , the ‘flip side’ of impacts policies have on privacy.” The aim of the Committee is to “paint a big picture that would sketch the contours of the full set of interactions and tradeoffs” and “take into account changes in technology, business, government, and other organizational demand for and supply of personal information…” (20).

The upshot of this ambitious program is that privacy as an undeniable and inalienable personal and social value that demands to be protected by law. This view is echoed on the international level in the Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age (2014), which declares that “there is universal recognition of the fundamental importance, and enduring relevance, of the right of privacy and of the need to ensure that it is safeguarded, in law and in practice” (5).  The underlying assumption of both reports is that whatever may be wrong with society, privacy is not part of the problem. It is the solution. A solution that must at all costs be defended against threats arising from the digital transformation of the 21st Century. This raises at least two important questions. What is the value that privacy has for individuals and society? Why has privacy become a central issue in understanding the global network society?

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