Privacy As Control

I gave a short rump session speech at PETS2012 about the privacy as control paradigm. Despite my thinking no one was paying attention, I had a few commenters afterwards tell me they enjoyed what I had to say. Essentially I said the following: Most people are familiar with the common understanding of privacy as confidentiality. We confuse the terms private with privacy. Private means concealed or limited in distribution but privacy is the decision making process by which an individual determines whether to conceal or reveal information. Privacy as control of information is the real paradigm we should model on. Alan Westin, the “father” of modern day privacy, in his seminal work, Privacy and Freedom (1967) defined privacy, in part as, the right of individuals to decide “how, when and to what extent information is communicated.” When we decide to reveal or conceal information, that decision is informed by certain assumptions on our part. One assumption may be about the legal regime affecting our disclosure or further dissemination. Another may be the cultural and customs of our society and that of the recipients. Assumptions about the technical means by which our information may be protected or further controlled will also inform our decision. Finally certain economic realities may influence the decision ( more about that latter). When our assumptions are flawed or the conditions upon which our assumptions were based change, our decision is invalidated. Whether this results in more information revealed than we would have otherwise allowed or information concealed which we expected to be disseminated, we feel violated. Both are a form of interference of control in our decision making process. {A recent op-Ed piece in the international herald Tribune highlights how the same activity can be both one of liberation and censorship depending upon the decisional autonomy of the person whose information is concealed or revealed. In “The Freedom of the Hijab” Ayesha Nusrat describes how wearing the traditional head scarf for her is liberating because she “see[s the] hijab as the freedom to regard my body as my own concern and as a way to secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women.” she asserts that the hijab allows her to control what we see of her and thus feels empowered because of it. She challenges the notion that the hijab is necessarily a tool of oppression conceal information women wish reveal.} Whenever we reveal information, we also choose to conceal information. Whether that choice is a conscious one or a subconscious one, interference with that choice can come both in the form of violations of privacy or censorship. Returning to Alan Westin’s definition of privacy, we could easily replace the word privacy with freedom of expression and the definition would fit. {something I didn’t get to in my short rump talk was the notion that economics is forcing our assumptions to be flawed. It’s becoming cheaper to reveal information, costlier to conceal . On the other side it’s becoming cheaper to surveil info and more expensive to censor. I look forward to exploring this in future blog posts, especially in the context of public records}