Privacy scholarship is expanding its concept of what we’re trying to protect when we protect “privacy.” In the U.S. legal thought, that trend leads from Warren and Brandeis’s “right to be let alone,” through Prosser’s four privacy torts, to Dan Solove’s 16-part taxonomy of privacy-related problems.
In this thicker privacy soup, I focus on the social aspects, what danah boyd and others refer to as “privacy in public.” It is not paradoxical that we want to exchange more information with more people, yet preserve some control over the scope and timing of those disclosures. Rather, privacy negotiation is part of building political and social community. I use the political liberalism of John Rawls to illuminate the political aspects: social consensus from differing background conceptions depends on a deliberate exchange of information.
We learn to negotiate privacy choices as we see them reflected around us. Yet technological advances challenge our privacy instincts by enabling non-transparent information collection: data aggregators amass and mine detailed long-term profiles from limited shared glimpses; online social networks leak information through continuous feeding of social pathways we might rarely activate offline; cell phones become fine-grained location-tracking devices of interest to governments and private companies, unnoticed until we map them.
I suggest that privacy depends on social feedback and flow-control. We can take responsibility for our privacy choices only when we understand them, and we can understand them best through seeing them operate. Facebook’s newsfeed sparked outrage when it launched by surprise, but as users saw their actions reflected in feeds, they could learn to shape those streams to construct the self-image they wanted to show. Other aspects of interface design can similarly help us to manage our social privacy.
This perspective sits before legal causes of action and remedies, but it suggests that we might call upon regulation in the service of transparency of data-collection. Architectures of data collection should make privacy and disclosure visible.