Why Does Privacy Matter? One Scholar's Answer

If we want to protect privacy, we should be more clear about why it is important.


Neo_II/Flickr/Rebecca J. Rosen

Our privacy is now at risk in unprecedented ways, but, sadly, the legal system is lagging behind the pace of innovation. Indeed, the last major privacy law, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, was passed in 1986! While an update to the law -- spurred on by the General Petraeus scandal -- is in the works, it only aims to add some more protection to electronic communication like emails. This still does not shield our privacy from other, possibly nefarious, ways that our data can be collected and put to use. Some legislators would much rather not have legal restrictions that could, as Rep. Marsha Blackburn stated in an op-ed, "threaten the lifeblood of the Internet: data." Consider Rep. Blackburn's remarks during an April 2010 Congressional hearing: "[A]nd what happens when you follow the European privacy model and take information out of the information economy? ... Revenues fall, innovation stalls and you lose out to innovators who choose to work elsewhere."

Even though the practices of many companies such as Facebook are legal, there is something disconcerting about them. Privacy should have a deeper purpose than the one ascribed to it by those who treat it as a currency to be traded for innovation, which in many circumstances seems to actually mean corporate interests. To protect our privacy, we need a better understanding of its purpose and why it is valuable.

That's where Georgetown University law professor Julie E. Cohen comes in. In a forthcoming article for the Harvard Law Review, she lays out a strong argument that addresses the titular concern "What Privacy Is For." Her approach is fresh, and as technology critic Evgeny Morozov rightly tweeted, she wrote "the best paper on privacy theory you'll get to read this year." (He was referring to 2012.)

At bottom, Cohen's argument criticizes the dominant position held by theorists and legislators who treat privacy as just an instrument used to advance some other principle or value, such as liberty, inaccessibility, or control. Framed this way, privacy is relegated to one of many defenses we have from things like another person's prying eyes, or Facebook's recent attempts to ramp up its use of facial-recognition software and collect further data about us without our explicit consent. As long as the principle in question can be protected through some other method, or if privacy gets in the way of a different desirable goal like innovation, it is no longer useful and can be disregarded.

Cohen doesn't think we should treat privacy as a dispensable instrument. To the contrary, she argues privacy is irreducible to a "fixed condition or attribute (such as seclusion or control) whose boundaries can be crisply delineated by the application of deductive logic. Privacy is shorthand for breathing room to engage in the process of ... self-development."

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Jathan Sadowski studies applied ethics and the human and social dimensions of science and technology at Arizona State University.

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