17 February 2004

Freedom and Privacy

Freedom and Privacy

We must have all read, sometime in the past, the small print telling us that our personal details won't be given away to others. And in the age of electronic mail shots we have all opted in or opted out of mailing list.

The business of privacy is big business for governments and corporations. Governments are busy enacting freedom of information acts, human rights acts and of course introducing more sophisticated id cards and other identification schemes. And corporations are busy analysing and comparing all the data they can get about us. We are, however, always being assured that all this is all for our own good.

So what could philosophy tell us about privacy? Especially, when it seems that the legal system has more or less got this little issue sorted out. I mean, even the rich and famous are responsible for a very lucrative legal cottage industry keeping their privacy intact. Even if it seems ironic when we consider that for one to be famous one has to have a certain degree of public exposure.

One area which still concerns philosophy is the idea of the individual. Privacy makes sense because it relies on the idea of the individual. In societies where there is no respect for the individual there is usually no respect for privacy.

Privacy itself depends on two very basic concepts: a unique identity of the individual self and ownership. Ownership here is of a very particular and basic nature, because it is ownership not of something made, but ownership of one's identity.

Privacy is also linked to private property. In one sense having private property not only means that we have a right to enjoy it but also the right to exclude others from our property. If we so wish, that is. Presumably, this also involves the option to tell others about it. The question then arises; is one's identity a kind of property? And an equally interesting question is whether one's identity is a private property? In the normal everyday use of property.

It will be convenient if one's identity was some kind of private property. This would make it easier to protect, because it would be identifiable and what's more it could probably be easily incorporated into an existing legal system that respected property rights. Could we use as an analogy, and model, intellectual property and intellectual property rights to understand personal identity and hence privacy? But how far can we take the analogy? Property rights, however, can be sold, hired or even licensed for a fee.

I earlier linked privacy with uniqueness of identity. We accept that our identity is unique because we accept that individuals are unique. I don't think that this should lead to a lot of problems, but it doesn't mean that this is devoid of interesting issues.

In fact there is a very complex issue related to form and substance. If we take the physical form of the individual, i.e. the body, we have an entity that has the same structure as other bodies. A body that has the same organs and anatomy as everyone else; of course there are two version of the human body, but let's not get into that. Yet all these bodies are unique, because the genetic make up is unique and other aspects are also unique. The form seems to be the same, but not necessarily the substance.

So by just looking at individuals as bodies we have a sort of duality paradox. And this duality impinges directly on our privacy. Through medical, social and statistical research companies can make predictions about us with a high degree of confidence. The irony is that they can know quite a lot about us, without asking us and without us needing to know it in the first place. But this does address the issue of the self and the identity of the self; i.e. the I. Who and what are we? Just a physical entity or something more?

This situation came to a head when it was suggested that we should all be genetically tested when we're born to identify any possible diseases we might be susceptible to. The idea being that we can be treated for any diseases we might have before it is too late. But like many good intentions, this is not without its pitfalls. For example, will we be obliged to tell employers about our problems and are insurance companies obliged to give us health cover? And should we be treated in the first place if we really have a nasty fatal disease?

Another issue which is more philosophical in nature, is connected with knowledge and epistemology. If I tell you that I'm short sighted, you will know a real fact about me. On the other hand if through research we discover that people with a lifestyle X are more likely to suffer from disease Y, and our neighbour has an X type of lifestyle, what do we know about our neighbour? Some companies and governments think they know enough to target us with their policies or in their public health education. Has any privacy been breached? What kind of knowledge is this and is this relevant to a debate about privacy?

In English we have a saying, one's home is one's castle; meaning what we do in our home is our own business. It is also a common law principle of a right to privacy. But how solid should this right be? For example, what if children are abused in someone's home? This problem can also spill over, and it usually does, into the cultural and religious domains. For example, does privacy extend to discriminate between male and female off springs because one's culture allows that?

Of course, cultural and religious issues need not be the result of some barbaric practice. For example, some cultures are very successful because they value the principle of helping members of one's family. This is very common in the business world with some very spectacular successes. However, usually one of the consequences is a reduction in privacy between family members. Incidentally, when things go wrong the consequences are equally spectacular.

We can accept privacy at home is sacrosanct, but what is the scope of privacy in a public setting? For example, what kind of privacy are we entitled to have in the work place? Or what kind of privacy are we entitled to have when we go shopping? It is quite telling to note that the rich and famous tend to have problems about their privacy because of their work or lifestyle. A pop singer or a head of a multinational just have a higher curiosity value than the rest of us. And in some case fame depends on people knowing a lot about that person. The question is not whether they should be afforded privacy like the rest of us, but rather at what price can their privacy be traded at? But this is beginning to sound like property rights being licensed out for a fee.

The market price for privacy depends, really, whether the rich and famous are negotiating as free agents. In fact, do we operate as free agents? Are we free to really do what we want as opposed to doing what we can? Are we really free to share our privacy with whoever we want? Are we free not to tell prospective employers that we suffer from that nasty disease? Are we free to have that disease in the first place, anyway? And then again, what is freedom?

Could it be that privacy is another case of freedom revisited?

take care Lawrence

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