Privacy for all?

The big ‘privacy’ story this week has been that surrounding the Duchess of Cambridge’s breasts. The coverage it’s been given (and will doubtless continue to be given) has been immense – but the issues that it should raise are far more complex than those that have appeared in the media. A shortish blog post isn’t enough to cover even a fraction of them – but there are a few points that a privacy advocate like me should be highlighting.

This particular intrusion is in many ways a ‘classical’ intrusion: the kind of long-lens photography of a celebrity that has existed pretty much since photography was invented. Indeed, the kind of intrusion that inspired Warren and Brandeis’ seminal piece The Right to Privacy in the Harvard Law Review as long ago as 1890. We can rant and rage about it, put laws in place and try to establish press standards and ethical guidelines as much as we want, but it almost certainly won’t go away – not so long as we’re interested in celebrities, and much though people like me might hope that our celebrity-obsessed culture disappears, I can’t see it happening. However, it does raise some very serious points.

Firstly, from my perspective, it reminds me of an overriding principle: rights, if they are to mean anything, should apply to all. That works both ways in this case:

Even people you dislike, or disapprove of have rights!

Even people that we don’t like, people we disapprove of, should have the right to privacy. In fact, this is one of the biggest tests of any commitment to rights: do we grant those rights to people we don’t like! I’m no royalist – indeed, in most ways I’m a fairly ardent republican – but I do think the Duchess of Cambridge has a right to privacy. Similarly, though I detest his politics, I believe Max Mosley has a right to privacy. They’re human beings – even if they’re ultra-privileged and ultra-rich, even if they ‘represent’ aspects or elements of society that I thoroughly dislike, and institutions that I would much rather don’t exist.

But so do the rest of us!

Just as importantly, it shouldn’t be JUST the Royals and other celebrities that have the right to privacy, and the kinds of protection that this right demands, but all of us. We shouldn’t save our outrage at invasions of privacy for those like the Duchess of Cambridge for whom the privacy invasions are obvious and well publicised – we should be aware of, and oppose, invasions of privacy wherever and however they occur. The threats we face are very different from those faced by the Duchess – I doubt anyone wants to point a telephoto lens at my window – but they’re there, and they’re growing all the time. If we care about privacy – and we should care about privacy – we should care about the way the government is planning to invade our privacy on a systematic and devastating scale with the Communications Data Bill (the snoopers’ charter), and we should care about the way businesses are monitoring our behaviour online on an equally systematic basis.

Privacy is about control

It may not seem the same, but there are more similarities about these two kinds of invasions of privacy. They’re both about control – the Duchess wants to have some control over what images of her are used, and by whom. Invasions of privacy like this destroy that control, and allow the most intimate of information to be spread without her consent or any chance of her control. The kinds of invasions of privacy that we ‘ordinary’ people face also allow the most intimate of information to be gathered about us – whether it’s discovering our sexual preferences by monitoring the websites we visit or our political views by the kind of music we listen to, or even our body shape and size by the products we browse – and allow that to be spread without our consent or control.

Of course the information is spread to different people and for different reasons. The Duchess’s breasts may be shared over the internet for the purpose of titillation or just gossip – our personal details are spread so that businesses can make money from us, insurance companies raise our premiums, employers learn about our personal habits – or authorities learn when and what we might be wanting to protest about in order to stifle that protest.

What is grotesque?

Where is the greater harm? At a personal, immediate and obvious level, the invasion of the Duchess’s privacy is grotesque, and it should be thoroughly rejected. At a societal level – and at a personal level for each and every one of us, the other, systematic, silent, hardly noticed invasions of privacy may be far more dangerous. They have the potential to be truly grotesque – and we should make that very clear.

5 thoughts on “Privacy for all?

  1. Thanks for this post. You make a very good point here:

    “At a societal level – and at a personal level for each and every one of us, the other, systematic, silent, hardly noticed invasions of privacy may be far more dangerous.”

    We are human beings, not commodities, and we deserve to be treated as such. Our information should never be distributed, used or sold in any way without specific knowledge and permission. In some instances, I think that knowledge and permission should be obtained per incident, per person. Obviously that would limit corporations’ abilities to obtain vast amounts of data quickly. But we have to ask ourselves the question: Is the privacy and rights of people more important?

    • Thanks – it’s all about balance, I think. Privacy is important, as are other values like security, economic success and so forth. They need to be balanced against each other – and right now, it seems to me, privacy often ends up being squeezed out by all the other values. It shouldn’t be!

  2. Further to what you have said, is that when information about a person is gathered about them without their consent or knowledge, they’ve no way to challenge it.

    Should that information be used against them, they really struggle to correct errors in the “evidence” being used against them. This means that if the material is in error, the onus is on the person to correct it. If they are being asked where they were on a particular day 5 years ago, it is very likely that the person will simply not remember, meaning that the “evidence” becomes the de facto truth about that person.

    This reaches sinister levels when a person could have been “finally identified” from CCTV footage or a person of interest about kidnapping cases. If they simply don’t remember what happened on that day, that person is automatically under suspicion — they are seen to potentially be lying to their interogaters.

    Put more simply, an errosion of a person’s privacy in this way leads, eventually, to the accused having to prove their innocence. As such, we need to oppose the continual background recording (with or without consent) of our daily lives.

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