Why privacy is for everyone

News & Analysis
Why privacy is for everyone

In Homer’s Iliad, the gods Juno and Saturn have great desire for each other, and Saturn wishes to lie with Juno on the top of Mount Ida. Juno protests Saturn’s advances, exclaiming: “What if one of the ever-living gods should see us sleeping together, and tell the others? It would be such a scandal that when I had risen from your embraces I could never show myself inside your house again”. Luckily for Saturn, Juno knows of a place with “good strong doors” where they can meet secretly and undisturbed…

For almost three millennia, privacy and scandal have gone hand in hand. One of the most famous definitions of privacy – “the Right to be let alone” – was coined by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in part as a reaction to the vast expansion of street photography after Kodak released their ‘snap cameras’ in 1884. For the first time, people had the power to capture for posterity the actions of others quickly, cheaply and easily. Coupled with an increasingly sensationalist focus in newspaper reporting, the turn of the twentieth century saw high-profile individuals more vulnerable to scandals that stuck – and thus more interested in being ‘let alone’

In recent years, tabloid journalism and the jurisprudence around the misdeeds of unscrupulous journalists and paparazzi have perpetuated the illusion that privacy is the preserve of the famous. The recent phone-hacking scandal is an excellent example of this. But with the contemporary privacy debate so frequently skewed in favour of celebrity and large corporations, one question goes unanswered: what does privacy mean for ‘normal people’?

There is little attempt by academics to understand privacy before ‘the breach’. This means when we seek to understand privacy, we are looking only at victims, individuals who feel betrayed or invaded as a result of specific events. However, the value of privacy may be better understood from a more day-to-day perspective.

In certain relationships, people routinely exchange information so personal that it is often considered ‘private’. Marital partners know intimate details about each other that they would never divulge to colleagues. Privacy is what makes all different kinds of relationships possible. If everyone knows everything about everybody, there can be no variation in quality of relationships, and it becomes impossible to achieve real intimacy.

It is these conditions that are important to study – and are the key to furthering contemporary debate. We need to stop trying to define privacy and instead seek to understand the conditions under which it occurs. This is something that can benefit society as a whole, not just those with fame and power.

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