Privacy appears to be a very important issue today when ICT permeates more and more aspects of our life. Mainly this is understood as a risk of breaking the privacy of persons, and possibly the privacy of groups, organizations, corporations and states. It is therefore interesting to investigate the main definitions of privacy, try to grasp its nature and to discern its features, and to discuss the possible ways of suitable and needed activities.
There are essentially two types if definitions. One is focused on the protection of information and on the rules that govern openness and protection. Moor (1997), defines privacy like “the expression of a core value, viz., the value of security” or “sometimes used to designate a situation in which people are protected from intrusion or observation by natural or physical circumstances.... In addition to natural privacy there is normative privacy. A normatively private situation is a situation protected by ethical, legal, or conventional norms.” A similar definition is given by Edmund Byrne (1998): Privacy as a “zone of inaccessibility”.
A different approach to the definition of privacy is focused on the control of information, and the main example of this kind of definition is given by Charles Fried (1968): “Privacy is not simply an absence of information about us in the minds of others, rather it is the control we have over information about ourselves”. In the same wavelength we find the definition given by Quinn (2011): “Privacy is a social arrangement that allows individuals to have some level of control over who is able to gain access to their physical selves and their personal information”.
Which of the two lines of definitions is more accurate and fruitful, regarding its power to guide our activities toward the achievement of desired goals? If we make an effort to describe the nature of privacy we can easily and rather fast come to the conclusion that privacy is not only something that has to be protected. Although this is important, underlined by both lines of definitions, it seems that privacy sometimes has to be diminished or invaded in order to satisfy important interests and values. One is to create a bond to another person, group or organization. To achieve this one has to give access to private information, or even to give up part or all limitations toward this special person or organization. It is a matter of trust between each other. The other situation, which is the most common one, is that a person, group or organization, which we may call a separate entity, has always another important interest added to the interest of protecting its own privacy: To break, diminish or invade the privacy of any other entity that is a prospective or actual partner in any sense. It is very important for any entity to acquire access to the information about any other entity that is of some interest.
If we now go back to the definitions of privacy, and look upon them through the glasses of our observations of its nature we may have good arguments to maintain that a definition focused on the control of information is more plausible. Given the controversial nature of privacy (protect it and break it at the same time) and the clashes arising constantly between all entities in a social interaction, the focus cannot be on normative solutions which if they work are always limited to a certain situation, but on the ways skills, methods and tools we use to create, revise and apply policies, guidelines, rules and principles to manage the issues of privacy.
Byrne, E. F. (1998). “Privacy”. Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics, 3, 649-659.
Fried, C. (1968). “Privacy: A moral analysis”. Yale Law Journal, 77, 475-493.
Moor, J. (1997). “Towards a theory of privacy in the information age”. Computer and Society, 27, 27-32.
Quinn, M. J. (2011). Ethics for the Information Age. Boston: Pearson.