Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Daniel J. Solove's "Understanding Privacy"

Daniel J. Solove is a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School. His books include The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet and The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Understanding Privacy, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Understanding Privacy, I discuss why privacy is valuable. My book is about the meaning and value of privacy, a concept that has long vexed philosophers, legal scholars, judges, policy makers, sociologists, and others. What is privacy? Why is it valuable? Privacy is currently a concept in disarray. For centuries, people have tried to define this most elusive of concepts, but nearly all attempts have ended in failure and frustration.

One might respond: Why bother trying to understand the meaning and value of privacy? But it is imperative we understand privacy. So many things of fundamental importance depend upon it. How should we balance privacy and security? How should we regulate government surveillance? Is it a privacy violation for companies to sell people’s personal information to other companies without people’s knowledge and consent? How should we balance privacy and free speech, when the media or bloggers desire to write about the personal lives of individuals? We need to know what privacy is and why it is valuable to answer these questions. And currently, the attempts to define the meaning and value of privacy have all failed.

Is it even possible to understand privacy? One of the problems with many current approaches is that they try to define privacy by looking for the common denominator that makes all things private. In my book, I argue that this is why so many approaches are doomed. If we define the common denominator too narrowly, we exclude many things that we consider private. For example, in many instances, the law understands privacy as a form of secrecy – concealing things. Under this conception, if something is exposed in public or if a secret is shared with others, then it’s no longer private. But we do so much in public where we expect not to be recorded or noticed. When we buy items in the drug store, we expect to be seen by a few patrons in the store and the store clerk and pharmacist. But we don’t expect them to care about what we’re buying – and especially not to record it and put it online. We expect a kind of limited exposure of our information with the understanding that it won’t be recorded or disseminated. The problem with defining privacy too narrowly is that the law will fail to protect many important things because they’re excluded from the conception of privacy.

On the other hand, if we define privacy too broadly – choose a common denominator that covers many things – then the conception of privacy becomes so vague that it ceases to be helpful or so broad that it encompasses nearly everything.

The solution I propose is to understand privacy as a group of related yet distinct things. Privacy isn’t one thing, but many. I set forth a taxonomy of all the different things that comprise privacy – there are 16 in all – and in describing each, I draw from literary, sociological, legal, philosophical, political, and international sources to explain what they are.

What about the value of privacy? We need to understand the value of privacy because privacy often comes into conflict with some very important values – free speech, efficient commercial transactions, safety and security, and so on. When such a conflict occurs, we must determine whether privacy or the opposing interest should win. I argue that privacy doesn’t have a uniform value. In some circumstances, its value might be trivial and easily outweighed by competing interests. In other cases, its value may be extremely weighty. But the value of privacy, while contextual and not uniform, must be determined by looking beyond the particular case in which it is involved. Specifically, I write: “For example, suppose the police randomly barge into a person’s home and conduct an intrusive search. In the process, they discover that the person committed a heinous crime. One might argue that because the person engaged in a crime, the value of protecting his privacy should be minimal.” (Understanding Privacy, p. 99). I respond to this argument by contending:

The law protects privacy in these circumstances not because the particular activities [the person’s crimes] are valuable but to preserve the full range of activities that can be compromised by a particular type of privacy problem. We protect against random searches of the home because they pose a threat to us all. The value of protecting against such searches emerges from society’s interest in avoiding such searches, not from any one particular individual’s interest. (Understanding Privacy, p. 99).

In the remainder of the book, I explore privacy historically, tracing how privacy of the home, body, sex, communications, and family developed over time. I also examine how my theory will help in concrete debates such as data security, data mining, and government surveillance. Although my book draws from a variety of disciplines, including philosophy, law, and sociology, I wrote it to be widely accessible. I hope that everybody who wants to understand privacy better will take a look at my book. Privacy is one of the most fundamental values, and modern technology is creating a litany of difficult challenges for protecting privacy in the Information Age. I wrote Understanding Privacy with the hope that it would help provide clarity and guidance as our society confronts these important issues.
Read an excerpt from Understanding Privacy, and learn more about the book at the Understanding Privacy website.

--Marshal Zeringue