One of the things I was struck by as the sad story of Mr Laws unfolded was the way in which his privacy was described. Lord Ashdown described him as a “deeply, deeply private person”, Mr Clegg as an “intensely private person”, with which Mr Laws agreed, although saying in his resignation statement that what he wanted to do was to keep his sexuality secret. For a party with a strong line on privacy I didn’t think it was a brilliantly informed performance.
At one point, listening to the way in which Mr Laws was describing his reasons for not disclosing his relationship, I thought that it was such a private matter that no one else could possibly know what it was he was talking about, which I suppose is a version of secrecy.
But the circumstances also suggested one of the paradoxes of privacy, which is that there is no such thing as Private Privacy. You can’t get round this by saying that someone is a very private person. Someone else’s experience or circumstances, even their most recessive states of mind, cannot be thought of as logically inaccessible to someone else. It is only the facts in a particular person’s circumstances which are unknown.
Generally speaking then, we do know what people keep private – something which is obvious, I suppose, because we are able to specify what we mean by private. “Private” is just as much a public concept as “Public”, to the extent that both depends upon agreed public criteria about what constitutes public and private.
What this means, though, for privacy awareness, is that it all depends on maintaining the gap between something being known or knowable in principle, and what is actually known about a particular person. Once that gap is closed there is nothing left of privacy – so the person who says “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” hasn’t really understood what privacy means.
Of course it is true that the loss of privacy is reduced by the extent of what is known, and who knows it. There will also be trade-offs and benefits resulting from privacy loss. But the new technologies are the perfect invention for removing the privacy gap not just in individual cases, and occasionally, but for every one, and all the time.
Data protection rules are there not to maintain the gap, but to regulate what happens after the gap has been closed. The original presumption must have been that although this would happen frequently, personal privacy would be maintained because it wouldn’t be happening all the time. We know that that isn’t true any longer. If the privacy gap has disappeared, then we need a new type of regulation recognising the fact, and a perhaps different conception of what information privacy means.