None of Your Beeswax

Privacy matters, but why?

May 13, 2014

Joseph Janes

This winter, I had the chance to explore an entirely new teaching experience, at least new to me. Along with my good friend Mike Eisenberg, I co-taught a large undergraduate course to 160 sophomores and juniors, many of whom are intending to apply to our baccalaureate informatics program. It’s very different from my usual 20–30 MLIS students learning about information services or research methods—quite invigorating in many ways, and terrifying in only a couple.

It’s a new mode and style of teaching for me, a new population and age of student, and it’s also happily given me the opportunity to take on topics in ways I don’t get into in my other classes, like design thinking, social media, information behavior, and privacy.

Like everybody, I’m aware of the importance of privacy for its own sake, and especially in the increasingly intrusive data mining/surveillance camera/viral tweet world we live in. Until I started to dig a bit further, though, my understanding of why privacy really matters and what it’s good for was surprisingly superficial.

So much of the discussion of late around privacy centers on its tradeoffs with security. Want to feel safe on a plane? Then you won’t mind having a full-body X-ray or a pat down that could easily be mistaken for a third date. Want to fight terrorism? Then it’d be fine to have the government read all your emails, listen to your phone calls, and know what you search online. Besides, if you don’t have anything to hide….

Which precisely misses the point about privacy. As James Rachels writes in his excellent 1975 essay “Why Privacy Is Important,” we all maintain a series of different kinds of relationships: with friends, spouses, parents, roommates, physicians, and so on. Each type of relationship in part dictates our behavior (would you more likely curse in front of your spouse or your mom?) and part of that is information sharing: Who gets to have what information about you, how much, and how will it be obtained?

New technologies can breed new kinds of relationships (think Facebook “friends” or sexting partners). Rachels also says “we have good reason to object to anything that interferes with these relationships, and makes it difficult … for us to maintain them in the way that we want to” (emphasis mine).

So. Add new ways of capturing and massively sharing information—cameras, databases, monitoring, Instagram—out of our immediate control, and now we lose the ability to differentiate between who gets what. Almost anybody could get almost anything. And that, then, begins to contravene our assumptions and principles about relationships, undermining those relationships and many of the social conventions we build up around them.

I felt as though I had to wrap this up with a positive story, so I asked the undergrads to think about a public, governmental entity that was dedicated to protecting privacy. That would be us. I think this came as news to many of them (nobody mentioned the library when I asked; perhaps that was too much NSA bugaboo early on), so I believed I had done a public service.

This feels to me like a pedal we could push with somewhat more vigor. With the steady drip of revelations about new violations, we can legitimately make the case that we’re one of the few places left that won’t look over your shoulder or tell anybody what we know about you or your habits or interests. We’re fighting for you, we’re on your side, and we won’t give you up.

A refreshing message in what often feels like a darkening world … but that’s another story.

JOSEPH JANES is associate professor and chair of the Information School of the University of Washington.



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