Why do we desire privacy? I’ve never really thought of that question honestly. The idea of privacy has always been a rote noun tumbling from my lips as an information security professional. I say: “We must protect people’s privacy” or “We must ensure privacy”, all said in an Orwellian sheepish sort of way.
And to top it off, because I have worked so long in the field of information security, I have almost all but given up on the idea that any of my personal information is private, and take the approach that if I am to tell something to someone other than my spouse and a few close personal friends, that information has now become the sphere of public domain.
And yet, there is still something about my life, and my home, and my family that I want to remain private, and personal… but why? In the article Privacy and the Computer written by Lucas D. Introna, Introna brings up a very interesting reason to the question of “Why Privacy (Introna, 2000)”.
To answer the question of why we need privacy as human beings, Introna states that living without privacy is like living in a world where everything is transparent. He continues by stating that in a transparent world, there can be no such thing as the statement an ownership of ideas, or personal relationships, or even the idea of personhood or intimate relationships.
Introna’s idea is that privacy is the means in which we as humans make distinctions between ourselves and others; the facilitator of levels of relationships from friends to intimacy. As someone once said: “Man is a social creature”, and to Introna’s point, if you take away our ability to relate to people in a social context, you take away what it is that makes us human.
The idea of the importance of retaining individuality in a transparent world, reminds me a lot of a writer that I am very fond of: C.S. Lewis.
In his masterpiece, The Great Divorce, Lewis writes of the divorce between Heaven and Hell; an analogical view of Heaven and Hell where people choose their place of existence.
In Hell, phantoms, at their own will, can hop on a bus and ride it to Heaven. Here, they are confronted with their own nakedness and exposure standing alone in their existence. They find that their ghost like appearance offers very little substance compared to things as mundane as grass and sunlight and rain in the context of a society of “solid people”.
One scene particular reminds me of Introna’s writings. Lewis describes a scene in which a well-dressed woman, suffering from the ghostly visage of those who have recently come from Hell, tries to run and hide among bushes to get out of view of the solid people who have since, or who are in the process of, transitioning into Heaven. Lewis writes the following (Lewis, 2009):
‘Go away!’ squealed the Ghost. ‘Go away! Can’t you see I want to be alone?’
‘But you need help,’ said the Solid One.
‘If you have the least trace of decent feeling left,’ said the Ghost, ‘you’ll keep away. I don’t want help. I want to be left alone. Do go away. You know I can’t walk fast enough on those horrible spikes [grass] to get away from you. It’s abominable of you to take advantage.’
‘Oh, that!’ said the Spirit, ‘That’ll soon come right. But you’re going in the wrong direction. It’s back there – to the mountains – you need to go. You can lean on me all the way. I can’t absolutely carry you, but you need have almost no weight on your own feet: and it will hurt less at every step.’
‘I’m not afraid of being hurt. You know that.’
‘Then what is the matter?’
‘Can’t you understand anything? Do you really suppose I’m going out there among all those people, like this?’
‘But why not?’
‘I’d never have come at all if I’d known you were all going to be dressed like that.’
‘Friend, you see I’m not dressed at all.’
‘I didn’t mean that. Do go away.’
‘But can’t you even tell me?’
‘If you can’t understand, there’d be no good trying to explain it. How can I go out like this among a lot of people with real solid bodies? It’s far worse than going out with nothing on would have been on Earth. Have everyone staring through me.’
‘Oh, I see. But we were all a bit ghostly when we first arrived, you know. That’ll wear off. Just come out and try.’
‘But they’ll see me.’
‘What does it matter if they do?’
‘I’d rather die. (p. 607)’
And I would echo, that to live in a world where I am an open book to be read, with no personal ideas, no personal values, no intimacy between me and others, and no social concept of relationships would, I too, would also rather die.
Introna, L. (2000). Privacy and the Computer. In R. Baird, R. Ramsower, & S. Rosenbaum, Cyberethics (pp. 188-199). Amherst: Prometheus.
Lewis, C. (2009). The Great Divorce (Kindle Edition). New York: HarperCollins-eBooks.