What follows is a passage from the chapter on Informational Privacy in The Value of Privacy by Beate Roessler. The author has been exploring the relation between autonomy (self determination) and the disclosure of personal information, in the sense of being able to control what significant (and identified) other people know about oneself, and how that might affect the behaviour and self presentation of an autonomous person. She then goes on to explore the same issues in relation to privacy and unspecified others, in the Bentham/Foucault Panoptic society:

“The fundamental point here is that the new information technologies may be problematic on the one hand because people are as it were being “de-privatised” against their will and the protection of privacy is in jeopardy, and on the other hand people are becoming more and more willing of their own accord to reduce or negotiate their private sphere, the dimensions of their privacy, in return for other goods.

The reason this can and should be considered a problem is that both a deliberate and a non-deliberate reduction in the protection of informational privacy may result in certain forms and dimensions of self determined and authentic behaviour not only becoming substantially less practicable, but also being conceived as less relevant, less crucial, less intrinsic to a rewarding life.

This would also entail a change in people’s self understanding to the extent that in important aspects of their lives people would be renouncing the chance to be unobserved, unidentifiable, inaccessible and protected in their informational self-determination.

This affects not only the idea of a rewarding, self-determined life, however, but also the idea of a liberal democracy itself, which is dependent upon autonomous subjects who are aware of and who value their autonomy.” (pg 120)

I think this is an exemplary analysis not just because it notices important privacy transitions related to ICTs that are happening at the moment, but because it places those transitions in the context of the autonomy of the individual (the individual life) and then relates that to foundational values of a liberal democracy. It is the kind of double contextualisation that isn’t made often enough.

Of course, you may also have doubts about the reality of individual autonomy, and informational control in contemporary society, a theme which I freely explored in my last post. But the point is to connect the privacy situation to the larger contexts, because then you can see what privacy is about, why it is worth protecting, and why it isn’t just about information management.

The Value of Privacy by Beate Roessler. Polity Press 2005.

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