A Case for Privacy
Recognizing privacy as essential for both the well-being of individuals and our communities has only become more urgent as technological innovation continues to erode the distinction between our private and public lives. Unfortunately, the bond between privacy and the individual is often glossed over, framed as an opaque black box which undermines our ability to recognize its importance. It is essential that we understand how privacy enables meaningful human expression granting both individuals and groups the opportunity embrace and cultivate our shared human nature.
The Right to Privacy, written in 1890 by attorney Samuel Warren and eventual US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is a pillar we can lean on to better understand privacy’s role in the private and public roles we play.
Warren and Brandeis argue that the “pain, pleasure, and profit of life” are not features exclusive to the physical realm but share a common space with more intangible human processes, specifically the “thoughts, emotions, and sensations” woven into our material realities. They argued that these expressions are inseparable from the individual and attempts to do so, either through distortion or outright denial, constitute a greater threat to the individual than physical violence. Privacy infringements poison the ability of individuals and their groups to imagine and cultivate their social existence similar to how a broken leg deprives an individual of their full capacity to engage with their physical environment.
Current technological systems increasingly rely on opaque algorithmic processes which reduce human engagement in social, economic, and political spheres to a handful of coarse databases entries. These conclusions rarely faithfully represent the complexity, context, and intended expression of those engagements. In the case of corporations, the information exists primarily as a means to increase value for shareholders. These violent reductionist processes interfere with our collective ability and capacity to imagine and construct a better future. As more behavioural data is harvested, stored, and processed, the power of both governments and corporations to distort and suppress our aspirations will continue to expand aggressively. Without the capacity to recognize and resist these incursions, once private lives will become fertile soil to be cultivated and harvested by those who have access and the means to target specific behaviours in order to effect change in line with their objectives. Our capacity to resist will wither.
Although the significance privacy holds will change as technology continues to embed itself and disappear within the fabric of our shared realities, privacy remains necessary. The space privacy affords for experimentation and growth, whether for an individual to freely reinvent themselves or a community looking to shed oppressive ideas and practices, is indispensable for the cultivation of healthy democratic processes. As the civil and women’s rights movements have proven, the defense and development of privacy rights is essential not only to democracy, but also the defense of humanity itself.