Here’s what one dictionary says:
World English Dictionary
privacy (ˈpraɪvəsɪ, ˈprɪvəsɪ) — n 1. the condition of being private or withdrawn; seclusion 2. the condition of being secret; secrecy 3. philosophy the condition of being necessarily restricted to a single person
Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009
I especially like that last one: restricted to a single person. In the VRM community this has been our focus in general. Our perspective is anchored with the individual human being. That’s our point of departure. Our approach to privacy, and to everything else, starts with the individual. This is why we prefer user-driven to user-centric, for example. The former assumes human agency, which is one’s ability to act and have effects in the world. The latter assumes exterior agency. It’s about the user, but not by the user. (Adriana Lukas unpacks some differences here.)
But this is a post about privacy, which is a highly popular topic right now. It’s also the subject of a workshop at MIT this week, to which some friends and colleagues are going. So talk about the topic is one thing that makes it front-burner for me right now. The other thing is that it’s also the subject of a chapter in the book I’m writing.
My argument is that privacy is personal. That’s how we understand it because that’s how we experience it. Our minds are embodied, and we experience privacy through our bodies in the world. We are born with the ability to grab, to hold, to make and wear clothing, to build structures that give us boundaries and spaces within which we can isolate what are our concerns alone.
Our bodies are containers that take in air and nutrients and emit wastes. We constantly orient our bodies with respect to containers—rooms, beds, buildings. We spend an inordinate amount of time putting things in and taking things out of containers. We also project abstract containers onto areas in space, when we understand a swarm of bees being in the garden. Similarly every time we see something move, or move ourselves, we comprehend that movement i terms of a source-path-goal schema and reason accordingly.
I don’t think privacy itself is a container, but I do think the container provides a conceptual metaphor by which we think and talk about privacy. I also think that the virtual world of the Net and the Web—the one I call the Giant Zero—is one in which containment is very hard to conceive, much less build out, especially for ourselves. So much of what we experience in cyberspace is at odds with the familiar world of physical things, actions and spaces. In the absence of well-established (i.e. embodied) understandings about the cyber world, there are too many ways for organizations and institutions to take advantage of what we don’t yet know, or can too easily ignore. (This is the subject, for example, of the Wall Street Journal’s What They Know series.)
So, if anybody can point me to anything on the topic, I would dig it very much. Meanwhile, here’s a hunk of something I wrote about privacy back in September:
Take any one of these meanings, or understandings, and be assured that it is ignored or violated in practice by large parts of today’s online advertising business—for one simple reason (I got from Paul Trevithick long ago): Individuals have no independent status on the Web. Instead we have dependent status. Our relationships (and we have many) are all defined by the entities with which we choose to relate via the Web. All those dependencies are silo’d in the systems of sellers, schools, churches, government agencies, social media, associations, whatever. You name it. You have to deal with all of them separately, on their terms, and in their spaces. Those spaces are not your spaces. (Even if they’re in a place called MySpace. Isn’t it weird to have somebody else using the first person possessive pronoun for you? It will be interesting to see how retro that will seem after it goes out of fashion.)
What I’m saying here is that, on the Web, we do all our privacy-trading in contexts that are not out in the open marketplace, much less in our own private spaces (by any of the above definitions). They’re all in closed private spaces owned by the other party—where none of the rules, none of the terms of engagement, are yours. In other words, these places can’t be private, in the sense that you control them. You don’t. And in nearly all cases (at least here in the U.S.), your “agreements” with these silos are contracts of adhesion that you can’t break or change, but the other party can—and often does.
These contexts have been so normative, for so long, that we can hardly imagine anything else, even though we have that “else” out here in the physical world. We live and sleep and travel and get along in the physical world with a well-developed understanding of what’s mine, what’s yours, what’s ours, and what’s none of those. That’s because we have an equally well-developed understanding of bounded spaces. These differ by culture. In her wonderful book French or Foe, Polly Platt writes about how French proxemics—comfortable distances from others—are smaller than those of Americans. The French feel more comfortable getting close, and bump into each other more in streets, while Americans tend to want more personal space, and spread out far more when they sit. Whether she’s right about that or not, we actually have personal spaces on Earth. We don’t on the Web, and in Web’d spaces provided by others. (The Net includes more than the Web, but let’s not get into that here. The Web is big enough.)
So one reason that privacy trading is so normative is that dependency requires it. We have to trade it, if that’s what the sites we use want, regardless of how they use whatever we trade away.
The only way we can get past this problem (and it is a very real one) is to create personal spaces on the Web. Ones that we own and control. Ones where we set the terms of engagement. Ones where we decide what’s private and what’s not.