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The fundamental need of privacy

December 1, 2018 · 0 comments

In mid-2018, the European Union’s data privacy regulation came into effect. Some people regarded it as yet another bureaucratic nightmare made in Europe. They ask: Is all of this trouble really justified for something as petty as privacy? Why should we spend any resources on it at all? One reason may be an underappreciation of our need for privacy. A close look at our societies and our own lives shows that privacy is a fundamental human need of its own and should be treated like one.

Personal life

In our personal lives, privacy plays an important role.

It is intriguing to consider how we use bathrooms. Officially, they are a place for people to relieve themselves. But unofficially, they have assumed many other uses as well — all of which concern privacy. Do you need to change your cloths, but don’t want to do it publicly? Use the bathroom. Are you in emotional turmoil and need a place to calm down? Lock yourself in a bathroom stall. Do you want to check somebody’s social media profile in secret? Pretend that you need to use the bathroom. Do you want to have a private conversation with somebody, but there are no other secluded rooms? There is always the bathroom. To some degree, our biological functions are a blessing, because they provide the justification to create a private space. It is certainly a detour, but this way we can satisfy our need for privacy.

It is hard to be authentic without having privacy. If you are being observed, your range of behavior is severely restricted. This happens on two levels. Objectively, you know that your actions will influence other people’s perception of you, which makes you think more about what you do. Emotionally, there is the dread of being judged and feeling shame as a consequence. The two of them combined can cause strong inhibitions. Conversely, if we do have privacy, inhibitions fall because we feel secure enough to express ourselves fully. Some may start dancing and singing around the house. Others may start working on projects they fear could make them a laughing stock. But if privacy is required to do something as basic as expressing oneself, it is reasonable to say that it must be a basic need.

Violations of privacy are usually quite hurtful. They can cause shame, which is probably the most intense and obvious, but also a host of other negative emotions. When somebody discovers that he is being spied on, a feeling of nakedness and vulnerability arises. In a surveillance state, someone might discover that the state knows much more about him than he thought. This feels as though he has lost his autonomy as an individual and is at the mercy of a giant invisible machine. In the modern world, such emotions usually don’t arise, because for the most part, we do respect each other’s privacy.

One argument is that if you don’t want other people to see something, then you should not be doing it in the first place. But this dismisses the possibility that the only reason for the secrecy is shame or other negative emotions. There seems to be the undertone that if you are ashamed, then it is your duty to become a stronger person and overcome your shame. But what do you do in the meantime? Also, only few people are able to reach that perfect level of not-caring-what-others-think. Humans are fundamentally fragile and shame has to be seen as a permanent part of our psychology. And since we have the capacity for shame, this means that once in a while, we also have the need for privacy.

People who share personal information without restraint seem odd and maybe even offensive. We instinctively assume that everybody has a private life that they want to keep to themselves. When they don’t, such as talking about their bowel movements, the response is a feeling of repulsion. There is even slang for it: TMI (too much information). To some degree, privacy is in the interest of other people: Don’t hang your dirty laundry for everyone to see. Not wanting privacy is certainly not the norm.

In summary, we feel good when we have privacy, we feel bad when we don’t, we are wary of those who don’t and when we don’t have it, we actively seek it out.

Social mechanisms

Our social mechanisms fundamentally rely on privacy.

First of all, there is the fact that each human has an inner life that the outside world has no access to. You can’t read my thoughts and I can’t read yours. All of us already have a built-in private space since the day we were born. The fact that this is on a biological level suggests that in order to stay balanced, we need to respect it by granting it the space it needs.

Groups of individuals stay healthy only if there is the possibility for private conversations. It allows people a safe space to exchange beliefs and opinions, build coalitions and prepare action. This results in a higher adaptivity to external circumstances and leads to a constant recalibration of the group to its members’ needs. This effect can be seen on small scales, such as parents discussing their children in private, as well as on large scales, such as conspirators preparing to topple an authoritarian government.

If everybody was forced to speak his mind publicly, many of these developments would not occur. People who dislike the current direction of the group would not find similar minded people, they could not organize themselves and would be doomed to suffer in silence. The group would become rigid and inflexible. Eventually, people would drop out, take drastic measures or the collective would break up entirely. Privacy allows individuals to examine a system honestly without dropping out of it. We instinctively know that privacy is what we need to be adaptive.

We rely on privacy for decision-making. Back room decisions happen in back rooms because they allow politicians a private atmosphere. While they are certainly undemocratic and frowned upon by the public, they allow politicians to talk honestly and freely to each other. This may lead to resolutions and compromises that would not have happened otherwise — in the interest of the public.

Privacy is central to social mechanisms, because if you disallow it, people will seek other ways to get it. If secret meetings between politicians were forbidden, they would simply find a different way to communicate in secret. The reason is not malevolence, but the fact that we have evolved to organize ourselves in this way. Forbidding private conversations does not remove the underlying need and simply leads to the creation of back channels. Just as outlawing a good leads to the creation of a black market.

Private interactions are neither good nor bad per se, but merely an instrument to organize ourselves. If two colleagues conspire against their boss, they will do that in private. On first sight, this can be seen as an argument against privacy, as it breeds instability within an organization. But whether this is good or bad depends on whom you ask! Instead of labeling it as either one, it would be best to acknowledge that this is natural and normal social behavior and that these are simply the mechanisms that we live by. To dismiss that and actively work against it would cause more harm than good.

Social structures

Privacy is deeply embedded in the structures we inhabit.

Sometimes it is so deeply embedded in our surroundings that we don’t even notice it. We spend most of our lives in buildings, but why do buildings always have to have walls? Wouldn’t it be more economical to have a single room that stretches across the entire floor and where everybody would live together? It would be, but we don’t do that because of privacy. A colleague should not be able to peek over somebody else’s shoulder unless explicitly allowed to. And the same goes for children who want to pry on their siblings. The absurdity of wall-less buildings demonstrates that when we design social spaces, we are often unaware that we are constructing them with privacy already in mind. This fact demonstrates how deep-seated our need for privacy really is.

We treat privacy as something valuable. People pay premiums for private beaches, private islands, private resorts and private golf clubs. Privacy is associated with exclusiveness, ownership and luxury. A need must certainly exist if people are willing to pay money for it.

Privacy reflects social status. Take a common status symbol as example: the corner office. While it has a larger size than a cubicle, its main distinction is the additional privacy. This carries the message that the person who owns that room is important enough for their conversations to be shielded from the outside. So, privacy is something to be earned and a reflection of somebody’s importance. In constrast, the lower classes of society are granted much less privacy. In the colonial era, the slave code determined that a slave’s house was to be searched every two weeks for contraband. Prisoners in the modern world are punished not just by denying them freedom, but also by denying them privacy.

Doctors have long understood that their patients need privacy. People struggle to open up about their medical issues even in private settings, but to do that without the reassurance of confidentiality would shut them off completely. This is particularly true in psychotherapy, where such matters are treated with great care. This stems from the acknowledgement that everyone, even the most tough and resilient, want and need privacy. As a consequence, the medical profession has institutionalized privacy.

Here is a wild idea: What if we uploaded all files on every computer to a publicly accessible platform by default? People have vast amounts of valuable data stored on their computers: ideas and insights, book notes, personal information, reports for school or university, pictures. We could reap a lot of benefits from sharing our knowledge publicly. Of course, we don’t do that for many reasons, one of which is privacy. Fortunately, we do not have to. Today’s informational system has privacy integrated by design: Everybody has his own private computer and, for every file, can choose to share it or not. We should be glad that this is where we ended up (for now).

Social networks award more privacy to their users than they get credit for. Their users have the fundamental ability to choose what they post: There is no hidden camera that records and uploads your every move, there is no law that forces you to join them and there is no agency that checks your online profile’s truthfulness and punishes you if you lie. One recurring argument against social networks is that a user’s postings are an embellished version of their actual life and therefore do not properly reflect it. This is great! It means that users still have agency over their online profile and, in particular, can choose to hide or creatively interpret things. This means that there is still a lot of privacy left1!

Given all of this, the idea that the average human does not care about privacy is preposterous. After all, it is an enormous part of our daily lives, it lies at the center of our social mechanisms and it plays a major role in the social structures we created. Rather than being an accessory, it secretly pervades our lives.

Technology

Advanced in technology make it possible to violate somebody’s privacy without them feeling it directly. If you catch somebody eavesdropping on a conversation, this elicits a completely different response than finding out that the telecommunications data of your phone call is stored on a server somewhere.

Nevertheless, since data privacy is a part of privacy, a violation of data privacy is a violation of privacy — it is merely not brought to the fore. Once you do, the response is the same as with normal privacy: Somebody may not be concerned about a corporation remotely sifting through his text messages. But if you ask them person-to-person to hand over your phone, you would immediately get a resounding “No”. In the HBO show Last Week Tonight’s episode on privacy, they asked people whether they are concerned with government surveillance. Unsurprisingly, they weren’t. But then they were asked whether they were comfortable with a government employee seeing their dick pics, and the response was exactly what you would expect.

Why should we be concerned if we do not feel that our privacy is violated? You may not be affected by this right now, but you may be in the future, when these violations start creeping into your life. For example, when you get a certain selection for coupons at a supermarket that suggest that they know much more about you than you want them to. Or when the government employee vetting you turns out to know some uncomfortable details about your life.

Regardless of future scenarios, a violation is still a violation. Even if you don’t feel it right now and probably never will. After all, if instead of your privacy, your freedom was on the line, you would still be upset even if it was violated very far away. The same should be true for violations of data privacy. The mere fact that they are remote is not an excuse.

What are possible remedies?

One approach is to place the responsibility on consumers: If they refuse to use services that don’t respect privacy, these services will cease to exist. The problem is that there is little chance of this happening. If you can get an immediate benefit by giving up some privacy, almost everyone would take this deal. Also, we have an instinct to trust companies with our data because we tend to believe in the general goodness of the world. Most importantly, even if you are concerned about your privacy, there is often no other option than to give up your data. Sadly, this is true for most popular platforms.

This is why this problem has to be solved with regulation. Governments should act on behalf of their citizens and impose binding rules on companies — such as the EU is doing right now. The goal should be that users are protected by default, even if they haven’t read the ToS or have never opened their privacy settings. It would be the same as with groceries, where strict rules and regulation protect you from contaminated food.

Ultimately, it will be up to technology to ensure privacy. It is the main cause of this problem and it is the only thing that can correct it. Building systems privacy-by-design, using encryption and creating transparent privacy settings are good steps in that direction.

Its own need

Usually, privacy is justified by freedom. People argue: If you know that you are being observed, you will say different things and tend to be much more conformist. So, having no privacy impedes your freedom of speech. Or they might conjure up the looming threat of a rogue state that uses your data to control you. All of these concerns are valid, but they give the wrong picture of privacy as being secondary to other needs.

Instead, privacy should be seen as a need of its own. After all, it is a central part of our lives. It would be inconsequential to deny its status as one of the basic needs — right among freedom, love and happiness. There is no necessity to talk about rogue states or other hypotheticals when the reasoning can be much more simple: We want privacy because we do not want everybody knowing everything about us. We want it, so we shall have it. That is all the justification we need.

Why is it so hard to acknowledge privacy as a basic need? When somebody asks for privacy, it seems that he has something to hide. People become suspicious. There seems to be a reflex to ask: “Well, what is it that you want to do in secret?” Paradoxically, the same nosy people will later ask for privacy themselves. Strangely, when somebody says that he wants freedom, nobody will think of asking: “Well, but what is it that you want to do with that freedom?”

Going back to the bathroom example, it is clear that people seek private spaces — so why not install privacy rooms that are specifically designed for that? The problem is that anyone being seen to enter or to leave a privacy room would immediately become suspicious. That doesn’t happen with bathrooms because privacy is not their official function2.

To recognize privacy as a basic need, it is helpful to not see it as a way to hide bad things, but rather as a mechanism that is an integral part of the human psyche.

This is not a plea to put privacy above everything else. It may be a basic human need, but it is one of the minor ones — by a wide margin. Freedom clearly trumps privacy. Security also trumps privacy. If there is a way to give up a little privacy to have a large gain in security, we should do it. For instance, if a court rules that somebody is a threat, he will be denied his privacy in favor of everybody else’s safety. As is always the case, basic needs have to be weighed against each other and compromises have to be made. But when you trade privacy for something else, you should be at least aware that you are giving up something valuable.

Conclusion

When I started to think about this, I thought that privacy was something insignificant and that only few people would care about it. But this is not true at all. Even if we are not aware of it or don’t want to admit it, we all care about it immensely. That is the only conclusion you can draw from the role it plays in our lives.

Privacy is something that is inextricably linked to being human. This also means that it is an end in itself. So, why should we care about privacy? That would be equivalent to asking why we should care about freedom or happiness.

Some are declaring that we live in a post-privacy society, but this is inconsistent with everything we do in all the non-digital areas of life. As long as we still build walls into our buildings, we are still living in a society that values privacy. This is unsurprising since human nature does not change at the pace of technology. Besides, why is society supposed to adapt to some technology that went wild? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

  1. While social networks allow privacy in principle, in reality, other factors come into play that are more important: monetary incentives to gain as much information about their users as possible, creation of new social norms around how much is acceptable to share online, social pressure through the peer group or the professional environment to participate in them and algorithms that infer information about a user that he didn’t share explicitly. 
  2. Another proof that human psychology is messy and complicated. 

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