Self, Privacy, and Power: Is It All Over?

Richard Warner, IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law

Originally published in 17 TUL. J. TECH. & INTELL. PROP. (2014).


The realization of a multifaceted self is an ideal one strives to realize. One realizes such a self in large part through interaction with others in various social roles. Such realization requires a significant degree of informational privacy. Informational privacy is the ability to determine for yourself when others may collect and how they may use your information. The realization of multifaceted selves requires informational privacy in public. There is no contradiction here: informational privacy is a matter of control, and you can have such control in public. Current information processing practices greatly reduce privacy in public thereby threatening the realization of multifaceted selves. To understand way this is happening and to figure out how to respond, we analyze the foundations of privacy in public.

Privacy in public consists in privacy by obscurity and privacy by voluntary restraint. Privacy by obscurity is essentially a matter of getting lost in the crowd. Privacy by voluntary restraint was perhaps first explicitly discussed by the great nineteen century sociologist, Georg Simmel. He was impressed by the fact that people voluntary limit their knowledge of each other as interact in various social roles. Merchants and customers, students and teachers, restaurant customers and waiters, for example, typically exchange only the information necessary to their interaction in those roles and voluntarily refrain from requesting, disclosing, or otherwise discovering more. Advances in information processing have greatly reduced both privacy by obscurity and privacy by voluntary restraint. We focus on the latter. One reason is that, as privacy by obscurity declines, the need for privacy in public by voluntary restraint increases. We confine our attention to the private sector; however, given the current corporate-government surveillance partnership, constraining private information processing is an essential part of constraining governmental processing.

Unlike privacy by obscurity, you need the cooperation of others to realize privacy by voluntary restraint. We explain the cooperation by appeal to informational norms, norms that define contextually varying permissions and restrictions on the collection, use, and distribution of information. Norm-implemented coordination is essential to privacy in public (in the form of voluntary restraint), and it is this coordination that advances in information processing and related business practices undermined. This happens in two ways. First, businesses exploit existing norms to create a debased form of “coordination” that serves their interests while eroding privacy in public. Second, technology-driven business innovation has created new forms of interaction not governed by relevant information norms. This lack of norms means the lack the coordination essential to privacy in public. As privacy in public disappears, multifaceted selves face the threat of disappearing—literally—from the scene. The solution is to establish norms that ensure sufficient privacy in public. We conclude by considering the prospects for doing so.

Our results are highly relevant to the proper legal approach to privacy. A critical task for legal regulation, as well as public policy generally, is the creation of appropriate informational norms. One of our primary motives is to reorient privacy regulation toward that task.