Privacy Dimensions

Jim Harper, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has written a post on the many dimensions of privacy. It’s a good list:

Fairness. This is at stake when corporations or governments use personal information in decision-making. If the data they use are inaccurate, or if the decision rule is inapposite to the circumstances, they may mistreat individuals in important ways. It’s a serious problem — or set of problems — distinct from control of information per se.

Personal security. Certain types of information, such as home and work address, phone number, and the like, can be used to harass and, in the worst case, facilitate violence and murder. There are some similarities to privacy protection, but controlling this information aims at protecting a specific interest in personal security.

Seclusion. Being able to navigate the world unmolested is another distinct interest often referred to as “privacy.” Telephone calls at home during the dinner hour were an example of this type of intrusion quelled by one of the Federal Trade Commission’s most popular regulatory efforts: the “Do Not Call” list. Notably, the offense here is not release or threatened release of information, but disrupted quietude or peace that is often founded not in knowledge, but in ignorance of the victim and his or her interests.

Autonomy. “Privacy” has also been used to denote authority to make one’s own decisions about intimate matters such as sexuality and procreation. Here again, the essence is not control of information — the classic sense of “privacy” — but control of one’s actual bodily self.

Anti-objectification. Another strain of “privacy” is the distaste for being objectified in the commercial realm. Marketers can be truly obnoxious, and resistance to their constant importuning of people is a part of the “privacy” discussion. This interest is favored — no surprise — by people who are not fond of commerce and markets.

Privacy and other values that go by that name

Harper is skeptical that any legislation can adequately deal with every dimension: “Omnibus legislation trying to protect many different interests and values all at once may advance none of them, if only because of the diffusion of focus.” And that’s not a bad diagnosis for the GDPR.

We can certainly try to rank these in terms of priority. Here’s mine:

  1. Autonomy. This is simply freedom, and it should be a core value that we protect. Any erosion of privacy that threatens individual self-determination should be a priority.
  2. Fairness. The use of personal information to impact us unfairly is often hidden, and I would make this a top priority as well.
  3. Personal security. This is obviously an important issue, but existing mechanisms appear adequate for now.
  4. Seclusion. Or obscurity, which I have previously discussed. For many this is core to living a happy life. But also perhaps generational / cultural.
  5. Anti-objectification. Distasteful certainly, but less of a priority in my view. Seems to make the most noise though. Sign of the times.