Another Perspective on the Value of Privacy

A philosophical perspective:

But while Descartes’s overall view has been rightly rejected, there is something profoundly right about the connection between privacy and the self, something that recent events should cause us to appreciate. What is right about it, in my view, is that to be an autonomous person is to be capable of having privileged access (in the two senses defined above) to information about your psychological profile ­ your hopes, dreams, beliefs and fears. A capacity for privacy is a necessary condition of autonomous personhood.

To get a sense of what I mean, imagine that I could telepathically read all your conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings—I could know about them in as much detail as you know about them yourself—and further, that you could not, in any way, control my access. You don’t, in other words, share your thoughts with me; I take them. The power I would have over you would of course be immense. Not only could you not hide from me, I would know instantly a great amount about how the outside world affects you, what scares you, what makes you act in the ways you do. And that means I could not only know what you think, I could to a large extent control what you do.

That is the political worry about the loss of privacy: it threatens a loss of freedom. And the worry, of course, is not merely theoretical. Targeted ad programs, like Google’s, which track your Internet searches for the purpose of sending you ads that reflect your interests can create deeply complex psychological profiles—especially when one conducts searches for emotional or personal advice information: Am I gay? What is terrorism? What is atheism? If the government or some entity should request the identity of the person making these searches for national security purposes, we’d be on the way to having a real-world version of our thought experiment.

But the loss of privacy doesn’t just threaten political freedom. Return for a moment to our thought experiment where I telepathically know all your thoughts whether you like it or not From my perspective, the perspective of the knower—your existence as a distinct person would begin to shrink. Our relationship would be so lopsided that there might cease to be, at least to me, anything subjective about you. As I learn what reactions you will have to stimuli, why you do what you do, you will become like any other object to be manipulated. You would be, as we say, dehumanized.

Posted on July 9, 2013 at 6:24 AM16 Comments


David Moss July 9, 2013 7:51 AM

Good article of Professor Lynch’s.

You have to watch your back against the “quantified self” merchants.

Here, for example, is Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee day-dreaming about the brave new world:

… individual users were not yet being allowed to exploit all the information relating to them to make their lives easier. Armed with the information that social networks and other web giants hold about us, he said, computers will be able to “help me run my life, to guess what I need next, to guess what I should read in the morning, because it will know not only what’s happening out there but also what I’ve read already, and also what my mood is, and who I’m meeting later on”.

Jones July 9, 2013 8:33 AM


When AOL published a database of their users’ search histories, the data was used for a variety of purposes.

One such use, which offers a glimpse into exactly the psychological dynamics described in the though experiment above, involve the site

Users of the site are invited to review users of AOL, and to vote on the humorousness of the search histories.

The academics Pass, Chowdhury, and Torgeson made use of the same data in their paper, “A Picture of Search” available here:

Daydreamer July 9, 2013 8:50 AM

One concept of invasion of self tied in with the “dehumanization” process is that process found with

totalitarianism where people’s freedoms of choice are removed to the extent that it can be said their

individualism is stripped.

Stalin, Hitler, Hoover, and so on, these were very, very boring people. Very static, very cardboard.

Collectively, or individually, they have the personality of a coffin board.

One could say “Stalin read much”. It did nothing for his personality. Videos of these individuals or

pictures should be taken as what they are: simple propaganda posters.

These sorts of individuals, and there are teems of them, have no more of a soul then a robot does. That

is, they are individuals who themselves are dehumanized.

Fictionally, you can call them “the Borg”, or “Cybermen”, or “Daleks”, and that is what they are. A singular corporate body where their trait is their leaders are very smart but have no heart. It is very important for these sorts to have absolute control over what people think by what they say so that all manner of individuality may be stamped out.

If you have a heart, you are their enemy.

For whatever reason, the populace actually believes these sorts very often, so they slowly become them. Maybe they are enchanted with their cunning. But their believing them requires culpability. They know their cunning is what it is. We know this because we know the things they believe are ludicrous, and that they are humans like us, so they have the capacity to understand this.

They knew that there was no “international Jewish conspiracy”, just as they knew “Christians are eating their own children” was not true, and just as they know “building an all pervasive spying system on you is necessary for terrorism” is not true.

(Though, it actually is necessary “for terrorism”. So they can be terrifying.)

(Right now they are failing at this, which, I am sure, makes them very angry. At best, they appear as Hitler wannabes sadly dressed in the dead skin garb of those who actually fought Hitler. A despicable abomination, but not yet terrifying.)

Rob Kinyon July 9, 2013 1:54 PM

The problem isn’t lack of privacy – it’s the imbalance of power. It’s just using privacy as the thing which has a power imbalance.

Imagine the same situation, but now imagine that whatever you can know about me, I can know about you. Do you have the same concerns?

anon July 9, 2013 6:04 PM

I think this quote should be properly attributed on this page, not buried behind a link that many will never click. Michael P Lynch, in an opinion piece for the New York Times.

Dirk Praet July 9, 2013 8:36 PM

There is a problem with philosophical perspectives on the dangers to privacy and the way we live our lives as caused by mass government/corporate surveillance and the technologies enabling such.

I occasionally raise the topic with some of the folks I hang out with, and most of the time I am perplexed by their utter lack of understanding the issue to the point that I have become rather apprehensive of debating it for fear of getting a reputation as a conspiracy theory nutter. It’s really strange because on our small square and its local pub I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by people from all over the globe (US, UK, Germany, France, New Zealand, Iceland, Greece, Holland and Palestine to name just a few). They have all sorts of backgrounds like students, painters, choreographers and dancers, architects, DJ’s, a movie director, fellow IT collegues, entrepreneurs, lawyers, economic refugees from Greece and Bulgaria, and even a guy who used to be an army captain under Sadam Hoessein. They are all but dumb or simple people.

The first natural reaction of failing to get a message across is of course doubting ones own presentation and other soft skills required to do so, but I believe the problem is bigger than that.

In general, it is quite difficult to explain anything to anyone who does not have the reference frame required to understand what you are talking about.

1) The average computer/smart phone user has no idea to which extent he/she is being tracked and what companies and governments alike can do with these data. Nobody reads EULA’s or T&C’s when installing a (free) piece of software or registering for a free service. Any company doing so by definition is considered a benign entity.

2) With the exception of the local lawyer, nobody really understands the concept of privacy or is familiar with local and EU legislation on the matter. Most folks blindly buy into the “if you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to hide” fallacy.

3) Ever since the US delivered us from the nazis and protected us from the Soviet Union, America is considered the leader of the free world, our friend and equal. It is unthinkable that they would do anything to hurt us or that our governments and institutions would have been reduced to puppets doing their master’s bidding . (The Iraqis and the Palestinians for obvious reasons beg to differ.)

4) Barack Obama, as the first black president of the US is held in very high esteem and for many is on par with Nelson Mandela. It is unthinkable that this man and his administration would be eroding civil liberties, violating the US Constitution and merely continuing the work started by the much despised Bush administration.

To cut a long story short: many even intelligent and well-educated people have a very hard time understanding the ramifications of the revelations made by Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers because they go directly against what they have always believed or for al practical purposes have never known at all. Its almost of the same magnitude as people in the middle ages getting told that the world actually was not flat.

Anyone else here with the same experiences ?

Figureitout July 9, 2013 9:02 PM

Dirk Praet
–I know your point #3 is in the history books, but is far from what I experienced in Belgie. Even myself would be ashamed when fellow Americans would come and wear an American flag and generally not respect the culture at all; someone I knew had a bumper stick in Belgie that said “Don’t mess with Texas”. I saw the graffiti, “Fuck USA”; overall people didn’t trust Americans and didn’t want to become “Americanized”; and simply used the show “The Simpsons” to learn english. I played soccer w/ the locals, frequented my local “frituur”, I was practically indistinguishable from other Belgians; so the ones I knew should know there’s Americans they can trust.

Frankly I don’t care if I’m thought of as a nutter, once more people experience what I have it will be the norm. Yes, my world was twisted upside down and it takes years for one’s mind to adjust to such a lopsided reality.

Clive Robinson July 10, 2013 2:40 AM

@ Dirk Praet,

    3) Ever since the US delivered us from the nazis and protected us from the Soviet Union, America is considered the leader of the free world, our friend and equal. It is unthinkable that they would do anything to hurt us or that our governments and institutions would have been reduced to puppets doing their master’s bidding . (The Iraqis and the Palestinians for obvious reasons beg to differ.)

That’s quite a bit of ground to cover.

First off you need to consider America as a nation seperate from the people of America historicaly they are quite different in out look. As a nation America has never been another nations friend and has spent much of it’s existance following a parasitic issolationist policy (most history books on 18th through 20th century world politics will show you this). As a nation it was abundently rich in natural resources and what was (as far as the settlers were concerned) “virgin territory” with a population almost to sparse to be considered populated. Thus America became in many European eyes a place of “opportunity” to be exploited as well as a safe haven away from the machianations of European nations rulers.

As a result the US could do very much what it wished untill the 19th Century, it had not gone through a “middle ages” and subsiquent nation to nation conflicts which generaly define a nation and it’s people. In effect it had not “grown up” politicaly nor had it had to as it did not have the economic stresses of European Nations and early “war by proxie” by various European Nations gave rise to an issolationist policy that was relativly easy to maintain. This was due to major European wars (leading upto and including Napolionic) prior to the disastarous conflict of 1812 where the US invaded what is now Canada, which defined Canada as a nation and saw the US Capitol invaded by the British (The reason it’s now known as the “white house” and not the “Presidential Palace” was due to the painting required to cover up the significant burn marks caused by British troops setting fire to it).

This issolationist policy remained in effect as long as America was effectivly issolated from Europe and the Far East by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Whilst the first world war and early German U-Boats gave a taste of what was to come [1] the US reverted back to it’s issolationist policy almost immediatly on the cesation of hostilities. And it was this that was seen by many as one of the primary reasons the League of Nations failed, which combined with impossible to meet reperations caused significant economic depression not just in Europe but in many parts of the world [2]. Which in turn many have seen as the reason politics polarised to the extreams and alowed the rise of Nazi German and in turn the Second World War.

As with WWI initialy US involvment was to profitably supply both sides of the conflict and maintain the issolationist policy [3]. Most politicians and much of the US populace were more than happy to stay well out of it. However a few politicians and citizens saw the writting on the wall and as a result America was starting to gear up to entering the war prior to Pearl Harbour.

WWII showed with the improved German U-boats once again that war could be brought to the US shores and that the US could not reley on the oceans to keep conflict at bay. And whilst WWI had seen the first aspects of science on the battle field, WWII was very much driven by science and technology part of which was the development of two offensive weapons, the V rockets and the nuclear bomb. Seperatly they were significant weapons together they would be considerably greater than the sum of their parts.

It was realised initialy by the scientists and later the politicians that it was only a matter of time befor all parts of the US would be compleatly vulnerable to such weapons and that the oceans either side of the US were now nolonger a barrier to the US being attacked.

Part of the US response was to realise that having Europe at war every twenty years or so would inevitably effect the US and rest of the world which was actually long term bad for the prosperity of the world and especialy the US. Initialy it was envisaged that occupied germany would be de-industrialised and turned into a “pastorial state” under the Morgenthau plan. However it was fairly soon realised that it was not possible in 1947 as Herbert Hoover observed of the plan for Germany,

    It cannot be done unless we exterminate or remove 25,000,000 people out of it.

He further went on to indicate that in most respects Germany was the trading hub of Europe and without it Europe would remaine in an significantly economicaly declined state.

Further it was realised that the blight of Communism was spreading and had used the depressed economic state to spread into France and Italy as well as Greece. It was realised that the policy of “rollback” was not going to work nor that of “containment” unless Western Europe recieved econnomic aid. A recovery plan was formulated and put in place and became known as the Marshall Plan. Over the four years it ran it helped raise economic prosperity in Europe to above pre-war levels. However it became clear that it was at best only possible to contain Russian influanced communism in Europe not roll it back. The Cold War had started in ernest and then at the end of Aug 1949 came the news the US had been fearfull of Russia detonated it’s first atomic device, much in advance of the times predicted by US intel analysts [4].

It was realised that to fight communisom required significantly more than just economic aid and it was this that significantly built up the US industrial-military complex that has developed an independent life of it’s own, and now in effect dictates US foreign policy.

[1] Contrary to what many people belive the U-Boat was a significant factor in WWI. Although the practical militarisation of the submarine had been British the heads of the British Navy regarded it as a dispicable way to fight a war and chose to stick with “big gun” boats. Germany however being virtually land locked and easily subject to surface ship blockade regarded it differently. And unlike the british pushed development into range and underwater endurance. As a result Germany had prepared for blockade whilst Britain had not and much vital shipping to Britain was sunk. WWI was very nearly lost to Germany over the U-Boat and at the time the only workable defence against it was found to be the convoy.

[2] Others quite rightly point to the flu pandemic of 1918 which gripped the world for over three years, unfortunatly as it attacked the respiritory system of mainly economicaly productive adults it had a significantly disproportionate effect on the world economy when compared to just the mortality statistics (and is the major reason today national health agencies such as the US CDC are significantly concerned with the likes of SARS and bird flu crossing into humans).

[3] Part of this issolationist policy had been the closing down of the US “Black Chamber” responsible for breaking foreign codes and ciphers, which put the US at a distinct disadvantage at the start of WWII. Because of this the US ended up getting nearly all U-Boat intel from Britain untill quite late in the war and it was this that in part gave rise to the BRUSA (now UKUSA) agreement that was the found stone of the “Speacial Relationship” and the founding of the NSA. Both of which have been in the general news recently due to Edward Snowdens revelations.

[4] The US did not expect Russia to get nuclear weapons untill some considerable time later. At the time it was not known that the GRU had been successfully spying on the US, UK and Canadian design and fabrication of nuclear enrichment and bomb design.


reader July 10, 2013 4:47 AM

Dirk Praet:
Excellent story and analysis.
All 4 of your points seem spot-on for many people I know.

#1 is a matter of technical ignorance.

#2 is probably a harder to explain more abstract issue. (I think the quote in Bruce’s article might be helpful for getting people to grok why privacy is important.)

#3 – yeah, what to say. The US is a rich powerful country, so no surprise that it has good PR promoting its virtues… 🙂

#4 is particularly frustrating, since the same people shrugging and defending Obama’s excesses were speaking out in anger at Bush’s similar excesses, e.g. when the PATRIOT act was first passed. It’s the willful hypocrisy of party loyalty posing as principle.

Dirk Praet July 10, 2013 6:59 AM

@ Figureitout

I know your point #3 is in the history books, but is far from what I experienced in Belgie

You are correct that the US’s immaculate reputation over the years has been seriously stained by Vietnam, and in more recent times by the Iraq wars, because of the highly critical coverage thereof by national press and media across the political spectrum. It is equally true that the average Belgian does not care too much for the prototype loud-mouthed nationalist American expat or tourist, typically considered as a dumbed-down, culturally challenged transatlantic version of our Dutch neighbours exhibiting similar behaviour 😎 .

An important element to consider here is the formidable PR work done by US ambassador Howard Gutman, dubbed by a leading Belgian newspaper as “The Ambassador Who Made Us Love America Again”. Despite recent smear campaigns originating out of Washington, Gutman established himself as an immensely popular household name by visiting every town in Belgium and appearing as a witty, highly intelligent guest on countless talk shows, appreciated both by proponents and critics of US foreign policy.

Jim July 10, 2013 8:01 AM

@Dirk Praet

A large part of the revelations is people’s reactions to them.

People are biased. They stick to singular viewpoints. They do not believe in considering all angles of subjects. Their viewpoints define them socially. Science, religion, politics, sports — even the food they eat. Anything.

But in the “free” world they want to at least pretend to have listened to “the other viewpoint”. In the “free” world there is that option to hear a variety of viewpoints. They never seriously do this, however. Instead, they have made a supreme art out of dismissing all challenging viewpoints.

They are collectively Man of La Mancha, fighting windmills they imagine are giants. They are master combatters against the strawmen of their fantasies.

The good news is all the different viewpoints are out there and you actually can hear them in the “free” world.

This is clearly subject to change.

G van Grijnen July 10, 2013 4:52 PM

As always, you are making an appeal to reason, Bruce.

But politics is all about making an appeal to sentiment.

So I am afraid this is going to end up badly.

jon July 10, 2013 8:25 PM

“I must not think bad thoughts.” X

There needs to be territory for thought and exploration, otherwise society will wither. Censorship is abominable, but self-censorship is corrosive. Unguarded thought cannot (should not) be criminalized. Richileau said that he could find enough in any three sentences anyone wrote to condemn him. And the Soviets did him one better. Orwell was not writing an instruction manual.

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