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What Price Privacy?

John Goff wonders what the real cost of privacy is in the modern world.

In recent years, worries about privacy have increased markedly. Many people have become aware that they are the objects of an increasingly intensive, and not necessarily benign, process of commercial and political information gathering. Concerns about the surveillance of our movements in the streets, in shops, and on the roads; about the use of loyalty card schemes to record our purchases; about the sale of our personal information, and about ‘data-mining’, evoke an anxiety that our privacy is rapidly being eroded. The anxiety is not only that information technology has decisively shifted the balance of power in the politics of privacy, but that the very idea of privacy itself is having to be rethought. It seems that privacy is now something that has to be justified rather than simply taken for granted. This job of justification falls in part to philosophy, to undertake the philosophical consideration of the meaning and significance of privacy.

Privacy largely depends on our having control over whether or not to disclose information about ourselves. It also depends on our ability to control the degree to which we are accessible to others. Privacy is not an absolute, but a matter of the degree to which one is either ‘transparent’ to others or ‘opaque’ to them. If you think of yourself as a source of information, then you are completely transparent when all your information is available to others, and completely opaque when none of that information is available to them. For example, if I take a walk down the road I may be seen by any of my neighbours, and the information that I walked down the road at a certain time on a certain day will be known to them. But unless they follow me, they will not know where I am going. What is transparent is that I have gone out; what is less transparent is where I've gone; and what is more or less opaque is why I have gone out. Should one of my neighbours ask me where I’m going and why, I may choose to disclose this information or I may not. But if I am questioned by a police officer, or a market researcher, or an officer of some government agency, then the grounds on which I may or may not disclose information about where I am going and why shift considerably. Someone with the power of persuasion or force, or the authority, may demand that I increase my transparency.

The degree to which I am transparent or opaque depends on the extent to which I am publicly known to others, and the means by which others can gain information about me. Some of this information may be a matter of public knowledge, and some may only be obtained from my words, behaviour or activities. You may not know that I enjoy betting on the horses, and I may not wish to tell you this. However, you can infer it by carefully listening to my conversation and observing that I buy racing magazines. In my turn, my privacy will depend on the degree to which I can maintain or increase my opacity. The extent to which you wish to increase my transparency to you will depend on what you wish to know about me and why. If you can convince me that it is in my interests to increase my transparency to you, I will be much more compliant in surrendering my privacy. However, you may also decide to spy on me without my knowing it.

We can therefore understand that privacy is something to be negotiated rather than something which is simply assumed. It is a matter of further negotiation as to which types of information may be surrendered without crossing the agreed line that separates the private from the public. An ‘information predator’ – that is, some person or agency who desires to obtain information about others, or to lower their opacity – will attempt to present information gathering as not involving a threat to privacy. This appears to have been one of the tactics behind the introduction of loyalty cards. The presumption, somewhat vaguely promoted, is that by allowing a company to keep a record of our purchases, we are working together with them to promote our own interests, by being rewarded for our shopping behaviour. However, if what we purchase is a good indicator of who we are (and this, very broadly, is the belief of the marketing industry) then we are certainly compliant in increasing our transparency and reducing our opacity by participating in such schemes.

Given that there has been a large increase in information gathering, the question ‘why?’ arises. The increase in information gathering we have witnessed over the last 25 years or so has hardly been the result of an increase in simple curiosity about others. Nor is it simply that vastly more efficient means are now available to process this information. One answer is that this information has value to someone, and the value of this information is both economic and political in nature.

Put crudely, the economic value of this information lies in the function it plays in increasing our purchasing of goods and services. The political value lies in its function of, putatively, increasing our collective security. This latter role has received much attention recently due to perceived threats from Islamist violence, organised crime and delinquency. The idea has been popularized that it is necessary to surrender more of our privacy in the interests of our collective security against these threats.

Personal information has economic or political value because it increases the predictability of the target individual or group. In a commercial context, it helps to reduce the uncertainty about what that individual will buy or might consider buying. In a security context, it might help to flag up individuals who could pose a political, criminal or social threat. Furthermore, personal information is valuable because it helps to clarify the basic categories of consumer and also their patterns of consumption relative to their other activities. For example, if sales of both disposable nappies and beer are higher on Saturday evenings, it may be because men are going to the supermarket at that time. This may easily be checked if most customers have loyalty cards. It will then be possible to attempt to increase sales of those brands of beer most preferred by fathers in particular socio-economic brackets. Loyalty card information would enable the supermarket to discern the preferences of such male consumers, and adapt the stock of beer (and nappies!) accordingly.

When you pay with a loyalty card, presumably the last thing on your mind is that you’re freely transferring a valuable asset to the company. That valuable asset is information, not only about what you’ve purchased, but also about your predictability as a consumer. You have made yourself more transparent, and thereby shifted the balance of power in favour of the information predator. But if such information is an asset, then whose asset is it? To whom ought this information belong?

Suppose that every time that I leave my house my neighbour records the time I go and the time I return. Suppose also that my neighbour records the age, ethnicity, height, and so on of everyone who lives at my house. Suppose also that this neighbour sells this information (imagine that some marketing agency wants to know the times different types of people are at home). The neighbour is paid for this information, and the marketing agency realises further value on the processing and subsequent sale of this information. Everyone realises some profit from this information, except the source of this information. In other words, I am a source of value but do not share in the financial returns. Furthermore, not only do I not share in any such returns, but I also incur a loss of privacy. Should I be compensated for such a loss? Don’t I have any claim on the profits accruing from this trade in my personal information? Ought I be able to stop such a trade?

In so far as information is about us, we have an interest in it. In so far as we are a source of value, of whatever kind, we also have an interest in this value. A question then arises as to the nature of our claims on this value, and whether we can claim rights in relation to our personal information, including claims on any value, financial or otherwise, arising from it. I might make such claims on political, economic, and ethical grounds. Some of these claims are security claims. They are in part claims to a right to self-protection. In so far as the use of information about me may render me more transparent, it may reduce my capacity for self-protection. Conversely, some degree of transparency may make me more secure, in cases where my distress or need for assistance, for example, is best made obvious to others. Privacy claims are also claims to a right to self-definition, or a right to solitude (as in the case of a hermit), and so on.

Privacy is a primary controlling factor in our relations with others. Whereas we cannot control what others think about us, nor what is said about us (except in certain cases of libel), we can control what can be known about us, or ought to be able to.

The information held about us plays a role in defining who we are for those who utilise this information. A question arises as to whether such information is an accurate index of who we are or not. The less accurate the information is, the less predictable we are going to be to those trying to anticipate our actions. Thus an information predator has an imperative to gather more and more information about us – if only to ensure that the already-held information is accurate. The effectiveness of personal data protection legislation such as the European Union’s ‘Directive 95/46/EC’ should be assessed in the context of such an imperative. Furthermore, as the capacity to process information increases, more information is required to make use of this capacity – information breeds the need for more information.

If there is an imperative to gather more and more information and to increasingly define individuals or groups, then individual claims to privacy begin to take on the form of a kind of dissent: a dissent which asserts not just a right to opacity, but also to a subjectivity that is neither defined by the information held about us nor accessible through it. The personal information collected by commercial and political agencies is information about behaviour from which it is hoped that information about attitudes, expectations and desires may be inferred. The information predators’ game is complex, but it has an overriding function: to define individuals according to information profiles so that they become increasingly predictable, and ultimately, malleable. The question of whether individual autonomy is thereby undermined, and whether this is desirable or not, or worth the cost in terms of the erstwhile increase in experienced consumer/lifestyle satisfaction, becomes a philosophical, ethical and political question. Privacy, opacity, becomes a defence of subjectivity, of personal identity. The individual asserts that beyond their transparency there is something else, something of their own. What is their own is their being, presence, consciousness. Furthermore, the relation between who we are for ourselves and who we are for others becomes more important and problematic as we become increasingly identified with and by our information profile.

A claim to a form of privacy in which subjectivity prospers takes the form of dissent – life lived in opacity, beyond deliberate scrutiny, and in defiance of the information-gathering imperative. It is to aim to put ourselves beyond the information that is supposed to define us, and thereby to take the power of unpredictability back upon ourselves and away from the information predators. Laying claim to the value bound up in one’s personal information may also be a form of dissent. Controlling information in this fashion, as an asset to be negotiated, may not only help us preserve and enhance our subjectivity, but also ground our power as citizens in the age of information, by us owning our own stake in its primary resource.

© John Goff 2008

John Goff teaches philosophy to adults, is actively engaged in philosophical research, and runs his own website at www.capcog.com.

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