Public discourse around privacy often centers on hiding or opting
out of public environments, whereas scholars and engineers often
focus more on controlling the flow of information. These can both be
helpful ways of thinking about privacy, but as philosopher Helen Nissenbaum astutely notes, privacy is always rooted in context (Boyd 60).
In this quote from It’s Complicated, Danah Boyd points out an import disconnect in the definitions of privacy: that of the public layman and that of the scholars and engineers tasked with determining the minutiae of the definition itself. Identifying this disconnect is critical in the discussion of privacy as it precludes meaningful discourse on how to implement privacy measures that satisfy all involved parties. While a more philosophical view is presented by the philosopher Helen Nissenbaum, the triviality of the statement, once again, fails to advance any kind of useful discourse on what privacy truly is; saying “privacy is always rooted in context” is a general statement that does nothing to establish a set of axioms from which we derive a general sense of what privacy is.
So then, what is privacy? Or rather, what are some common features of this ethereal concept we refer to as “privacy”? For this, we can return to Boyd’s distinction between two different views: that of the public and that of scholars and engineers. For the public, privacy is the ability to hide certain personal details from the public eye or scrutiny. Sounds simple enough, but this definition falls apart with regards to private third parties. Suppose, for example, that a teenager doesn’t want their parents to snoop about their private social media feeds, accounts that are understood to be privately available to a select group of people chosen by the teen themselves. Parents, in this situation, act as a private third party and, under the aforementioned definition of privacy, should be allowed to have access to these accounts. However, ask any teen whether or not they would grant access to their social media to their parents and you’ll be met with a zealous “No”.
So then, if this definition fails to address certain, we must turn to the scholarly definition, the one wherein the actor has control over the flow of their personal information. This definition, however, also has its faults, faults which have grown more apparent with the advancement of the digital age. We’ll examine these faults in the context of a teen’s media feed once more. Consider then, the case where a teen posts information to a select number of carefully curated followers: close friends and acquaintances, among others. Following, suppose one of those friends wishes to share the post with their friends, and so on and so forth. Here, we see that the scholarly definition of privacy fall apart at the outset, as as soon as the teen posts the information, they relinquished all control over the flow of that information.
As such, we see that both definitions of privacy fail in an increasingly connected world, but they do provide us with a general sense of what privacy means in practicality: privacy can be loosely defined the ultimate freedom to choose who exactly can view one’s personal details. While such perfect privacy may never be achievable, defining privacy as such can ultimately lead to constructive discourse on how to approach such an ideal, despite the increasingly abundant pitfalls created by a digitizing world.