Monthly Archives: November 2016

Is There Such a Thing as “Informational Privacy”?

The concept of “information” is not very informative. This is because there are so many different meanings to the word. Almost every scientific discipline has their own definition, from physics and chemistry to biology, informatics, mathematics, philosophy, and even sociology, which has long been talking about an “information society.” So what does “information” mean? What is information? Obviously, we need to decide, that is, to filter out much of what can be discussed about the topic and select those meanings of the term that are useful for our purpose, namely, attempting to understand what is meant by informational privacy.

According to the classic definition of Alan Westin (Privacy and Freedom 1967), privacy is “the ability to determine for ourselves when, how, and to what extent information about us is communicated to others.” This definition carries with it several important implications. First, privacy is a matter of information. This information must in some way be “about” us, that is, us “personally.” Privacy therefore has to do with a specific kind of information, namely, “personal information,” or as it later became known, “personally identifiable information” (PII). Another important implication of Westin’s understanding of privacy is that it is not the information itself that is most important, but rather the “ability to determine” what information is communicated to others. Privacy therefore does not primarily reside in any particular informational content, for example, information that would somehow describe a person so intimately that he or she would not be able to communicate it without losing privacy. On the contrary, it would seem that privacy resides above all in the freedom to communicate or not to communicate information, whatever it may be. For example, it could be argued that our genome is so personal and intimate that any communication of our genome to others would automatically constitute a violation of privacy. The implication of Westin’s definition, however, is that we could well determine to do so, that is, if we wanted, we could publish our genome on the internet for the world to see and this would not constitute a violation of privacy. If someone else however, for example, our doctor were to do this without our consent, then, of course, this would constitute a violation of privacy. Privacy is therefore a matter of consent, of decision, of freedom and choice and does not reside in any particular information. This means that privacy consists primarily in the will, in the act of deciding to communicate. Only if my free choice about communicating information is infringed upon can we speak of a violation of my privacy. Finally, Westin’s definition assumes that privacy essentially has to do with communication, that is, privacy is the right to communicate or not to communicate. A right to privacy in this sense only makes sense, however, if communication is an option, something we can choose to do or not do. This means that Watzlawick must have been wrong when he stated that “we cannot not communicate.” If human beings are essentially social and human existence is constituted by communication this would make privacy as Westin defines it impossible. Only if information about a person is something that is not necessarily and automatically communicatively constituted and distributed in social space can privacy be possible.

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