Privacy in Public and the contextual conditions of agency

In Tjerk Timan, Bert-Jaap Koops & Bryce Newell (eds.), Privacy in Public Space: Conceptual and Regulatory Challenges. Edward Elgar (2017)
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Current technology and surveillance practices make behaviors traceable to persons in unprecedented ways. This causes a loss of anonymity and of many privacy measures relied on in the past. These de facto privacy losses are by many seen as problematic for individual psychology, intimate relations and democratic practices such as free speech and free assembly. I share most of these concerns but propose that an even more fundamental problem might be that our very ability to act as autonomous and purposive agents relies on some degree of privacy, perhaps particularly as we act in public and semi-public spaces. I suggest that basic issues concerning action choices have been left largely unexplored, due to a series of problematic theoretical assumptions at the heart of privacy debates. One such assumption has to do with the influential conceptualization of privacy as pertaining to personal intimate facts belonging to a private sphere as opposed to a public sphere of public facts. As Helen Nissenbaum has pointed out, the notion of privacy in public sounds almost like an oxymoron given this traditional private-public dichotomy. I discuss her important attempt to defend privacy in public through her concept of ‘contextual integrity.’ Context is crucial, but Nissenbaum’s descriptive notion of existing norms seems to fall short of a solution. I here agree with Joel Reidenberg’s recent worries regarding any approach that relies on ‘reasonable expectations’ . The problem is that in many current contexts we have no such expectations. Our contexts have already lost their integrity, so to speak. By way of a functional and more biologically inspired account, I analyze the relational and contextual dynamics of both privacy needs and harms. Through an understanding of action choice as situated and options and capabilities as relational, a more consequence-oriented notion of privacy begins to appear. I suggest that privacy needs, harms and protections are relational. Privacy might have less to do with seclusion and absolute transactional control than hitherto thought. It might instead hinge on capacities to limit the social consequences of our actions through knowing and shaping our perceptible agency and social contexts of action. To act with intent we generally need the ability to conceal during exposure. If this analysis is correct then relational privacy is an important condition for autonomic purposive and responsible agency—particularly in public space. Overall, this chapter offers a first stab at a reconceptualization of our privacy needs as relational to contexts of action. In terms of ‘rights to privacy’ this means that we should expand our view from the regulation and protection of the information of individuals to questions of the kind of contexts we are creating. I am here particularly interested in what I call ‘unbounded contexts’, i.e. cases of context collapses, hidden audiences and even unknowable future agents.
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