Thursday, 11 July 2013

Privacy part 3: What is it?

Part 1 - Part 2

In part 2 of this rather impromptu series, I finished up by asking some questions about the link between secrecy and privacy. Part of what I was asking, and indeed something that's been bubbling along under the surface since the start, is what is meant by 'privacy', and what issues count as issues of privacy.

Here's how the dictionary defines privacy:

"A state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people; the state of being free from public attention." (Source)

So there are three different kinds of issue that fall under privacy, if this is correct (and it sounds plausible to me). First, there are issues of observation, secondly of disturbance, and third of public attention.

Each of these kinds of privacy breaks down further, too - there is, at least arguably, a difference between government observation, corporate surveillance, and individual invasions of privacy like stalking. Public attention could mean the kind of paparazzastic fervour visited on celebrities, or the attention of a crowd in the street rubbernecking at an accident.

The question, then, is whether there are activities which legitimately should be kept free from any of these three kinds of invasion. Are there times when one should be unobserved? Are there times when one should be undisturbed? Are there times when the public should avert its collective gaze?

The answers to the latter two questions, I think, are clearly both 'yes'. There are times when invasions of privacy in both of these senses can inflict actual psychological harm, if nothing else. The collective public attention in particular can be very stressful for those it picks on, particularly if the large-scale media gets involved.

But most of the discussions I see about privacy seem mainly to be about the first kind of privacy - observation. And I still struggle to approach the question of 'Are there times when one should be unobserved?' in a constructive way at all. I think this is because I separate the fact of being observed from the fact of information gained through observation being used in any way (and I do this at quite a basic, intuitive level, not necessarily as a rationally-considered position).

This separation suggests to me that merely being observed cannot make a difference to anything. It's true that sometimes when observed we behave differently - I've said before that I'm powerfully self-conscious, and prone to sudden bursts of awkwardness from accidentally making eye contact with strangers - but this may be blurring the line between observation and disturbance. It's not the observation that's the problem, but (at least, arguably) the various social constructs around it which make it disturbing.

The reason that the old philosophical cliche 'If a tree falls in a forest and there's no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound?' is normally considered to be a specious and silly question is that observation is supposed to make no difference to the way things stand (Schrodinger and his cat notwithstanding, but that particular bit of physics only applies to subatomic particles anyway). So, for anything you do, there is no reason to be concerned about whether it is observed or not because it cannot possibly make any difference either way.

Perhaps this seems too hard-line. The author of this rather vague and unfocussed article certainly agrees. He says that the real privacy issues arising from government surveillance (observation) are problems of data handling, not collection. They are problems of whether the government's (or any other agency's) holding of your data can harm you in some way.

For example, one of the problems of government surveillance is that of false positives - of the government (or any other agency - I keep stressing this because I'm far less worried about government surveillance than private corporate surveillance) guessing from the data it collects about you that you are guilty of something which in fact you haven't done. Perhaps you buy some books about Islam and a government-owned computer somewhere judges that you may be becoming a radical, rather than just curious.

Another problem is that knowledge is power. A government that holds lots of information on its citizens is more likely to be able to wield its power against them if it becomes corrupt. For example, a government that keeps detailed track of its citizens' locations is better-placed to arrest one for blowing the whistle on corruption or malpractice in government.

I agree entirely that these are the problems arising from government (or corporate) surveillance. What I disagree with the author of the linked article about is that these are privacy issues, or possibly that these are issues of invasion of privacy. They are issues of government (or corporate) secrecy and/or incompetence. They are issues of a power imbalance which is probably an inevitable part of even democratic governments.

And, crucially, they are issues of a lack of transparency. When we do not know what information the government has about us, or how that information is being used or is going to be used, there are all sorts of ways in which we can be harmed. Not knowing makes us powerless. It stops us defending ourselves.

My point is that freedom of information should be a two-way street. Governments (and corporations, though I recognise in this particular sentence that's a more radical view) should under no circumstances be allowed to operate in secret - they must be answerable to their citizens (or stakeholders). Of course, a government or corporation that is always answerable to all its citizens or stakeholders is an ideal, a dream, but as I said last time out, that's what I deal in. I accept the practical need for privacy just as I accept the practical need for some government secrets.

But the ideal, always-answerable government is one whose information-gathering and information-holding can cause no harm, because its citizens can always prevent it doing so.

There's still a lingering question over whether privacy should be protected even in a world where it is impossible that invasions of privacy could cause any harm, but I cannot see a way to get hold of that question discursively at all - it seems like it will reduce to a matter of intuition about what life would be like in such a world - so I won't be pursuing it here, at least for the time being.

No comments:

Post a Comment