The Ontological Interpretation of Privacy

Luciano Floridi is one of the few philosophers of the digital age who radically reinterprets issues such as informational privacy on basis of an informational ontology (see The Ontological Interpretation of Informational Privacy, in: Ethics and Informational Technology, 2006). Being is information. The world consists of information and not things or people. People do not possess their personal information, they are their personal information. Privacy therefore should not be understood as an issue of possession and control of data, but as a matter of personal integrity. Stealing and misusing personal data should not be compared to stealing and misusing someone’s possessions, for example, their automobile, but instead to kidnapping. My data is not the same as my auto, but rather much more like my body.

If information is a state of being and not a state of having, then what constitutes privacy? Floridi defines privacy in terms of the “ontological friction” regulating the flow of information in the “infoshpere.” The more friction blocking, disturbing, slowing down, and attenuating the flow of information, and the more effort it takes to bridge the gaps between information, the more privacy can be ascribed to information. Correspondingly, the less the flow of information is regulated, slowed down, hindered, the less this information can be considered private. Private and public are not different spaces, for example, the privacy of my home as opposed to public spaces like the shopping center or the train station. Digital media do not knock at the door and ask permission before entering. They are ubiquitous. Privacy is neither a space, nor a thing, but a state of being.

Social actors can be thought of as entities within the infosphere. Their status as individual beings depends on their ability and their right to create ontological friction around themselves, that is, around information that constitutes them. On the other hand, being information depends upon the ability and the right to enter into networks, flows, and communication. Indeed, relation, linking, association, and connection are constitutive characteristics of information. As Saussure put it, language, that is, meaning and thus information, is nothing other than a system of differences, of relations, and connections. Informational existence therefore is never isolated, secret, and unconnected. Privacy can therefore not be understood as a matter of concealing, hiding, deleting, or denying information. We are our information and cannot exist without it. We are linked, connected, networked, and cannot exist otherwise. Privacy defined as ontological friction means that we are able to limit the tendency of information systems to subsume information under other information such that identity disappears or can no longer manifest itself. This can be done according to Floridi 1) at the point of generation of information by means of PET’s, that is privacy enhancing technologies; 2) at the point of storage of information by means of guarantees that agents know about what information is stored, how they can access this information, how they can correct errors or demand deletion; and 3) at the level of exploitation or use of data by means of identification and regulation of uses and misuses of data.

It would be interesting and perhaps the beginning of a fruitful discussion to compare Floridi’s concept of ontological friction to Latour’s principle of “irreduction.” For Latour “nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (The Pasteurization of France, 158). In terms of ontological friction this implies that no information can be completely subsummed under other information or exist completely independent of it. Ontological friction thus becomes a constitutive condition of information, a minimal condition of existence in the infosphere, just as irreducibility is a condition of existence in Latour’s collective.

The digital revolution has not killed privacy. It may be that “publicy,” (Stowe Boyd) and not privacy is the default. But this does not imply giving up privacy altogether. Instead it means rethinking the nature of privacy within a global network society, a society in which the traditional distinctions between private and public and person and information typical of the industrial age no longer apply.


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