Unpopular Privacy: What Must We Hide?

By Anita L. Allen | Go to book overview
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When my friend Vincent took a new job, he was dismayed that the company’s desire to stringently protect the privacy of employees’ e-mail meant he could not use his favorite old password at work: “123OceanAve”, the street address of a childhood home. His employer instructed him to select a password that did not contain any word found in the English language dictionary, plus at least four numerals, a mix of four upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet, and an exclamation point. “Zj34uc!91B” met the criteria, but my friend would have preferred to take on the slight risk of someone hacking into his e-mail than to have to memorize a random stream of characters.

Vincent is one of the many people who consider data privacy measures a bother. Their attitudes of annoyance raise questions about the extent to which paternalistic impositions of privacy by particular people or entities in particular contexts are warranted. In Vince’s case the motives for imposing a strong data protection regime on workers were not purely paternalistic. The firm was seeking both self-interestedly to protect the integrity of company data, and paternalistically to protect the privacy of employees’ personal e-mail sent from the office or company webmail. Mandating a secure password is weak paternalism, coercion barely worthy of objection; but mandated data protection can have significant implications for choice, speech and other freedoms.


Paternalism by government is not rare, but requires special warrant. In a society with liberal aspirations, we expect regimes of choice concerning personal information to be preferred over regimes of coercion whenever possible. Indeed, policy makers with free market stripes work especially hard at times to avoid and minimize state coercion. But coercion can be, in a way liberals commend, advantageous to the individuals coerced. Freedom has to be forced on the loyal slave or subservient wife who cannot imagine a better life without a master.

As an example of privacy-related policy making in which the specter of state paternalism raised its head and had to be confronted, in chapter 1 I described how U.S. Federal Trade Commission regulators created an optional Do Not Call registry to give Americans a choice about whether to stop receiving the nightly tsunami of tele


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Unpopular Privacy: What Must We Hide?


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