Standing in the Footprint: Including the Self in the Privacy Debate and Policy Development

Article excerpt

Personal information can be considered a shared good, since in many cases this information is accessed, used and distributed by more than just the individual. Thus, how personal information is defined or characterized and why it is valued differs based on whether or not one is the person whom the information describes. This article shows how current debates that influence policy and regulation are largely based on economic and social frameworks, points out policy issues that are evident due to the absence of a "self-perspective," and suggests how inclusion of the "self" might lead to more effective policy in the future.

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Personal information sharing is core to both social exchange and, in today's economy, commercial interaction. Yet, the pervasive nature of information sharing and the commoditizing of personal details challenge the current perspective of informational privacy. This has led to continued debate over privacy and consumer/personal information as the needs of commercial and social constituents are balanced against the rights and perceived danger to the individual. This balancing act is exemplified in the recent media coverage of LifeLock, the identity protection firm that offers "fraud alert" coverage on credit files (Lieber 2008). Here, the commercial need for customer credit information creates an opportunity for identity theft, which leads to paid services to protect consumers from such danger.

For an individual who is unequivocally and permanently attached to a set of personally identifying characteristics, the special nature of self-perception and the value of identity can be compromised when both descriptive and intimate information is provided to another, either in a social situation or in a commercially base exchange. For the permanently attached body, personal details that are shared, be it for goal achievement or otherwise, may be thought of as sacrifices of the self (Belk 1988). Such consideration of self-sacrifice is in contrast to the more prevalent privacy debate perspectives that personal information exchange involves a social dilemma and/or one of economic value, property, and shared use (Cress, Kimmerle and Hesse 2006). Where the social perspective rests on the assumption that improving the overall welfare of the group directs the choice of what, if any, information should be publically disclosed, the economic perspective focuses on the debate over whether personal information should be subject to control beyond that of the individual; that is, how others' information is retained and used/reused and to what extent this leads to greater economic value.

While researchers have not neglected pursuing theoretically grounded arguments to debate the privacy issue, collectively we have been remiss in mostly excluding theory of the self--the individual and his/her relationship to the information in isolation of any exchange that may take place. Such a discussion is likely to be enlightening, as it is this "absolute" view that in whole or part may drive the cognitive and emotional appraisals associated with the sharing of personal information in both commercial and social situations. As highlighted later in this article, we suggest that the underlying dynamic of the self plays an important role in delineating what is and is not private and drives the success or lack thereof in the outcomes of various regulatory and/or marketplace initiatives.

In the following text, we present a brief discussion of privacy and then present the economics-based rationale for information sharing, the value of information in a social system, and finally the value of information to the self. Policy developments based on the economics and social frameworks are also included. Emphasis on the third view, the self-perspective, constitutes the contribution of this article. Although not fully integrated into the political discourse on privacy now, we argue that our assessment of the interactions between the economic-social aggregate and the individual, and the resulting action-reaction interplays, will offer new perspectives for privacy discussions and policy direction. …