Back to 'Popular Press' index


Why is privacy a good idea? Why isn't it an outmoded concept, made obsolete by technology? Why should people expect to have secrets, that they can keep? The answers to these have a lot to do with what makes society work.

Privacy relies on the ability to have secrets, at least in the short term. There is evidence that this is connected with how identity works, how 'self' is kept separate from 'other'. A very great deal of how society works, and the whole idea of rights and responsibilities, is tied-in with identity. Society expects 'continuity of identity'. Any messing with privacy, that might interfere with identity, is something that needs to be done with a great deal of care.

Secrets are fundamental to identity. They are how people are distinguished, including by technological means. The banking system, the legal system, how people prove who they are, all depend on 'shared secrets'. Secrets allow trust and cooperation, while giving ways to handle the failure of agreements, those trying to 'cheat the system'. Yes, they are also used as tools by cheats and liars, but their use of secrets doesn't 'join up with reality', so will likely be discovered, at some point.

Privacy and Power

In past, privacy has depended on obscurity. On no one having the technology, the power, to sweep it away. This seems likely to change, as technology provides inexpensive ways to gather information about everyone, all the time, and the means to analyse that information, in ways that would destroy privacy.

Information can be incredibly valuable, it can literally enable the saving of lives, massively improve quality of life, help prevent and correct all sorts of problems. But, it can't be allowed to damage privacy, in ways that in turn damage society. Simply because the means is available to do something, doesn't imply it should be done. But it does imply that the consequences should be understood, and means of control put in place.

Power relationships are a bit like ecological niches - unless something exists to control them then they will be used, exploited, in ways that will be very undesirable, both for individuals and society. People are talented at finding new ways to do things, in particular if they are 'easier', or appear to be free of consequences - "we were just having a bit of fun", or, "anyone would have done it", are popular claims. If the mechanisms aren't in place to make there be consequences for abusing power relationships, it is pretty certain that abuse will occur.

Privacy gives an individual ways of ensuring that only those who have agreed and legitimate use for their information gain access to it. Also that they can, in many cases, know who has had access. Or, at least be sure that any access is recorded in ways that protect them as an individual. Data and meta data needs to be private - not just the subject of conversations, but who is conversed with, and when, or even that conversations have taken place at all. Private conversations, and everything about them, needs to remain private.

Rights and Responsibility

The other side of power is rights and responsibilities. A good case can be made that rights exist because society maintains a space within which they are possible, right and proper. It should be noted that this requires the society to have the resources to do this. Responsibility is tied-in to capability; an individual cannot be responsible for something if they are not capable of doing it. Responsibilities are connected to the agreements and expectations which make society work.

One way of looking at how society works is to consider ethics. Authority as a basis for ethics gives the problem of what is a legitimate and agreed source of that authority. Utilitarianism may have the problem having too reductionist an approach, and being good at detail while loosing track of the broader picture. 'Virtue Ethics' may be less good at the detail, but may useful for keeping track of what sort of society it may be desirable to live in.

Who is responsible for an individual's privacy? If the individual has the power and resources then it can be argued that they should be. It would then be the responsibility of larger social structures to deal with privacy issues that the individual can't. It can be hoped that the individual will be happy, or at least can tolerate, what society does on their behalf.

Some individuals might have the right to privacy, but not the power and resources to manage it themselves. These tend to break-down into three groups: those who may develop, such as children; those who wont be responsible, such as humans disabled from birth; and those who are incapable, due to accident or illness (such as insanity), or were previously capable, such as the dead. It might also be worth considering those who have such overwhelming responsibilities that they don't have the resources to manage their privacy, and states like being asleep or unconscious.


Privacy is a real need, and is a requirement for the sort of society most individuals want to live in. Any system which provides privacy needs to be rooted in the rights and responsibilities of the individual, as well as the wider requirement of society for the information it needs to function. The capabilities of an individual to manage their own privacy need to be very carefully considered.

(c) ROMsys Ltd, June 2013, permission given to use for non-profit making purposes

Back to 'Popular Press' index