What is privacy, why can’t we agree about it, and why is data a particular problem?

Design informatics research seminars

The concept of privacy has divided lawyers, scholars and policymakers for decades, not only in terms of whether it is a good or bad thing, but even what it is. Some say it is a human right, some that it is a prerequisite for democracy; others note that individuals are prone to breaching their own privacy and are remarkably relaxed about it, and have described various privacy paradoxes or other common inconsistencies in attitude – all of which make it extremely problematic to determine when privacy, or its breach, is in the interests of individuals or society. The divisions have become more pressing since the growth of digital technologies, the development of the legal concept of data protection, and the ubiquitous collection of big data.

There are two reasons for this disarray. First, different privacy discourses are going on simultaneously, talking past each other and cheerfully engendering various category errors. Certain discourses, for example in law or cybersecurity, even have a hegemonic tendency to assume that they ‘own’ the concept of privacy. Secondly, this is compounded by technological change that is forcing constant conceptual revision and changes in social attitudes. This talk sets out a series of seven types of privacy discussion, which are distinct but relatable to each other, as a first step towards clearing up the confusion, and argues that there must be a strong firewall between conceptual definitions of privacy, and debates about its value.

Kieron O’Hara is an associate professor and principal research fellow in electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton, with an interest in the social and political impact of technology, particularly the World Wide Web. His particular interests are in privacy, trust and ethics, and is the author of several books, including ‘The Spy in the Coffee Machine’ (with Nigel Shadbolt). His report, ‘Transparent Government, Not Transparent Citizens’, on open data and privacy, was published by the Cabinet Office in 2011, and he advised the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice on open data released from 2011-15. He is one of the leads of the UKAN network of anonymization professionals.

Design Informations T room, 1.09 Evolution House, 78 West Port, Edinburgh, EH1