Privacy Fundamentalism: An Essay on Social Responsibility

By Duff, Alistair S. | Journal of Information Ethics, Spring 2020 | Go to article overview

Privacy Fundamentalism: An Essay on Social Responsibility


Duff, Alistair S., Journal of Information Ethics


Introduction

Privacy faces an existential threat. Such assertions are of course unoriginal, not even controversial. State spying on entire citizenries, local council snooping, omnipresent cameras, targeted advertisements, employee monitoring, facial recognition, heat sensors, implanted devices, drones, smart uniforms, the internet of things, genetic profiling, neuro-imaging, artificial intelligence, and so on and so forth: there are so many actual or potential privacy harms that trying to list them is a fool's errand. Moreover, surveillance is now operating not only at the familiar level of sight, sound, and other observable senses; the "primary qualities" of space and time have also been compromised. The linear time and separate spaces which anchored privacy in the industrial era, have given way in the post-industrial age to a space-time continuum where privacy has lost all boundaries and all permanence. There remain, in Christena Nippert-Eng's vivid language, precious few "islands" of privacy (Nippert-Eng 2010).

It was all prophesied. Jeremy Bentham, a thinker "more important for the understanding of our society than Kant and Hegel" (Michel Foucault quoted in Vysniauskas 2018), foresaw the "inspection principle" governing not just prisons, but also mental asylums, schools, hospitals, factories, and welfare agencies (Bentham 1995 [1787]). Today each and every one of these social institutions has been allowed to fall under more or less complete electronic surveillance. It is not without significance that Bentham's original sketch for his "Panopticon penitentiary" has scrawled next to it a quotation from Psalm 139: "Thou are about my path, and about my bed: and spiest out all my ways..." (Bentham n.d.). Two hundred years later Theodore Roszak would denounce the quasi-religious "cult of information," a mindless worship of information technology and concomitant neglect of "the true art of thinking" (Roszak 1994). Now in the twentyfirst century the situation is chronic. Personal privacy in the information society is profoundly "against the flow," at odds with the epoch's totems of transparency and connectivity. Of course, there are occasional interventions, "data protection" initiatives such as the recent European Data Protection Regulation, but with every step forward, it is not long before we find ourselves two steps back. No one can seriously doubt that, as a basic fact, privacy is in crisis.

It will be argued in this article that the only effective antidote to privacy's predicament is "privacy fundamentalism." This admittedly striking term has a documented history in privacy research. Introduced by the law professor and pioneering privacy researcher, Alan Westin, "privacy fundamentalists" are defined as persons "generally distrustful of organizations that ask for their personal information, worried about the accuracy of computerized information and additional uses made of it," and "in favor of new laws and regulatory actions to spell out privacy rights and provide enforceable remedies." They are different from "privacy pragmatists," who always "weigh the benefits to them of various consumer opportunities and services, protections of public safety or enforcement of personal morality against the degree of intrusiveness of personal information sought and the increase in government power involved." Privacy fundamentalists differ even more from a third category of "privacy unconcerned," individuals who are "generally trustful of organizations collecting their personal information" and "ready to forego privacy claims to secure consumerservice benefits or public-order values" (Louis Harris Associates & Westin 1990; see also Kumaraguru & Cranor 2005).

Westin's surveys throughout the 1990s showed that approximately 25 percent of the United States public were privacy fundamentalists, compared with 55 percent pragmatists and 20 percent unconcerned. However, he detected a diminishing of the ranks of privacy fundamentalism after 9/11, in favor of pragmatism (Westin 2003). …

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