Desensitization as a privacy harm

“The Internet age means that a whole generation is accustomed to the idea that their digital lives are essentially in the public domain ” say Tyler Dawson in the Ottawa Citizen. While I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Dawson’s stereotyping a generation, I get his drift in terms of what I term desensitization. That is the idea that increase scrutiny into one’s private life leads to increased expectation of that scrutiny and thus reduced moral outrage.

In risk analysis we often look towards objective consequential harms or damages that may occur as the result of some action or inaction. The prototypical example is the risk of financial theft as a result of having one’s credit card or identity stolen. And while tangible harm is certainly important it is not the only type of damage that may result. Courts are loathe to recognize intangible harms, such as emotional distress, except in rare circumstances. But very few people would deny the very intangible harms to one’s psyche if nude photos were to be circulated of oneself (unless of course one is in the business of circulating such pictures). Many privacy harms are ethereal. Very few of us would be comfortable with the notion of constant surveillance by someone without our consent, even if nothing could ever affect us in a tangible way. I remember being provided a thought experiment at one point. If a space alien could use a telescope and follow your every movement, see everything you do, inspect every thought in your head, does a privacy harm exists? If you knew about this observation does that change your answer? Many people would feel judged in their behavior and thoughts and may alter their routine to prevent adverse judgment about them. I, as would others, would argue that is sufficient to rise to the level of a privacy harm. You are having to change your thoughts and behaviors as a result of the invasion into your personal space.

I return then to the idea of desensitization. The constant surveillance and invasion of privacy changes our social mores. It alters our thoughts and feelings towards the very notion of privacy and does so without our consent. To that extent, I would suggest that invasion without consent itself is a privacy harm. There need not be anything else.