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Are We Talking about Privacy or Liberty?

In the New Yorker, Louis Menand has penned a lengthy piece exploring what we mean when we talk about “privacy” and why we care so much about it. Keying in part off recent books on the topic by historian Sarah Igo and tech journalist Cyrus Farivar, Menand covers a lot of ground in tracing the history of privacy, the death of which has been bemoaned for years in many different contexts. It’s a fascinating read and suggests at the end that perhaps what’s really at stake is “liberty.”

Possibly the discussion is using the wrong vocabulary. “Privacy” is an odd name for the good that is being threatened by commercial exploitation and state surveillance. Privacy implies “It’s nobody’s business,” and that is not really what Roe v. Wade is about, or what the E.U. regulations are about, or even what Katz and Carpenter are about. The real issue is the one that Pollak and Martin, in their suit against the District of Columbia in the Muzak case, said it was: liberty. This means the freedom to choose what to do with your body, or who can see your personal information, or who can monitor your movements and record your calls—who gets to surveil your life and on what ground

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Comments About Are We Talking about Privacy or Liberty?

Notable Replies

  1. Thanks, Adam. This article put into words what I was unable in my mind. It reminded me as immigrants came to North America via ships into New York. They passed Staten Island and viewed the Statue of Liberty, not the Statue of Privacy.

    Without a system of basic inherent rights of and to privacy we can have no realistic expectation of liberty. I see my privacy diminishing each year especially in two areas in my native country of the USA: all internet activity including social media and commerce and in every aspect of health care. We’ve long ago lost most liberties in the realm of personal finance. We could omit the word “personal” and simply refer to it as “finance.”

    Thanks for continuing to keep TidBITS viable and relevant.

  2. Privacy…liberty…tomayto…tomahto…

    I read this piece back in June when it was published. Menand makes some
    good points, but I think that dismissing the difference between past and
    present as merely matters of scale and/or efficiency is sidestepping the
    nature of the problem. It’s precisely because technology has made it
    efficient to collect and use information on such a massive scale that
    the questions of who has what data, how they obtained it, and how they
    are using it require revisiting and may demand different answers from in
    the past.

    I think both ‘privacy’ and ‘liberty’ may be the wrong terms for what
    people are really looking for here. I think a better term would be
    ‘authority’ or ‘control’. We want to have the ability to decide how our
    information is collected, distributed, and used. That includes the
    decision to keep some information private, the freedom to be left alone,
    and most other aspects of this debate.

    Mark D. McKean
    [email protected]

  3. That’s an interesting take, Mark. One of my long-held beliefs about personal information is that it is and should be valued as intellectual property. You should own—and thus control—information about you. That might involve trading it for free service, but that should be your choice, and ideally, you shouldn’t be prevented from paying real money instead.

    Amazon encapsulates this in some ways with some of their Kindle tablets, which are cheaper if you’re willing to be shown ads. What’s most important there is that you have the choice of paying more or viewing ads, something you don’t get with Facebook, for instance. There was a recent survey that showed that only 23% of Americans would pay for Facebook without ads, but still, that’s nearly a quarter of the population.

  4. I like your thoughts on “authority” or “control” but they are somewhat embodied in “privacy.” I cannot speak for other countries, but in the United States of America the words “privacy” and “liberty” are used with precision from a constitutional point of view.

    I appreciate your point of view. Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves, or information about themselves, and thereby express themselves selectively. This is completely consistent with what you describe in your second paragraph. I would very much like the authority to control information shared about me. This is the exercise of privacy.

    “Liberty” entails the responsible use of freedom under the rule of law without depriving anyone else of their freedom.

  5. While this is true, I wasn’t talking about the formal usage. I was
    talking about the general public discourse, which is what the article in
    question appeared to be addressing with the relevant comment. Most
    people would need to have it explained that “privacy”, in a legal or
    constitutional sense, implies control over personal information even
    when that information is not strictly “private”. Explicitly stating that
    control over all personal information is what is being discussed helps
    put people on the same page.

    The greatest difficulty in public debates about these sorts of things is
    that you have experts using terms which within the formal scope of the
    field have precise definitions but cover a wider range of vaguer
    meanings to the general public. Not recognizing this, and expecting the
    general public to recognize and know that these terms have precise
    meaning in the relevant field, is a recipe for having your message
    misunderstood and/or misrepresented, either inadvertently or
    intentionally. (The most well-known example of this regards the
    scientific use of the term “theory”.) It’s generally best to assume
    that, absent specific explanation, non-experts will assume the general
    vernacular usage rather than the formal usage, and so either provide
    additional explanation or use terms that have a more targeted common
    meaning when communicating with those outside the field.

    Mark D. McKean
    [email protected]

  6. This is good. I was just thinking about this as I connected my new tv box to youtube; you can’t connect anything to anything now without having to sign off the rights to the fokking web sites to collect data about your browsing and your comments and your shopping, it makes me wanna puke.
    And it’s probably OK, but you just can’t know. People’s Google search histories have turned up in court cases and whatnot…

    Duckduckgo.com does not track your search history. But sadly, and oddly, the interface is simply not as good as Google! It does not mix results on the first page, and with video searches it only shows Youtube results, which is bizarre.

    David Pogue has a very relaxed view on all this, he just can’t see the problem. But it is spooky that there is tonnes of information about you floating around out there, and you have no idea what or where. And the world does not lack for people or agencies who may want to hurt you, for example Alex Jones’ fanatical followers who harrass the shooting survivors.

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