Saturday, March 8, 2014

Data Absolutists and the Limits of Privacy

Neil Seeman and Sabrina Tang have blogged about 'Data Absolutists' who believe in the liberation of public data; data to be reviewed by citizen researchers and fed back to "the" public to moderate government services and promote openness.

But if more open data, as promised in the OGP (Open Government Partnership) is such a great thing then what are the limits to online privacy ?   In discussing the utility and costs of information privacy, we could perhaps learn something about where it lives, and where it should live, in our societal machine.

This is an old article (from last year):.

 [NY Judge Richard] Posner likened privacy to a "superior good," one that is not something that is deeply ingrained in human nature, but rather a luxury.

The thrust of the argument is that privacy is a double edged sword because it essentially means concealment. Posner argues that privacy is simply protection to conceal that which we do not want others to know, like arrests, illnesses, etc. In his eyes, it's the right to present the most polished version of ourselves. He asks whether that is a social luxury we are willing to forgo in order to preserve something greater, like security.
So we have an idea here of privacy as an updated form of 'hiding'.  I like that association because it places the social and technical construct of privacy as one of McLuhan's extensions of man - in this case, an extension of our basic social selves.  That means that online privacy serves to address our human feelings: of fear, of modesty, of curiosity for example.   

Now we're in the age where your public person is define through your online transactions and behaviors - public and private.  There is still a public and private sphere, that you constantly trade and share with service providers such as Google and Facebook, much as you check your right to privacy when you walk in public, or through a private space owned by someone else.

The opportunities for engaging in public discussion for collective benefit in the same way are immense, as well as from benefiting from public online behaviors but we will need to develop our ideas of privacy a little more and especially recognize that online personas are a certain type of extension of our real selves. 


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