The philosophy of privacy

Published: 15 August 2018 by Emma Martins

Thursday 15th November is World Philosophy Day, below our commissioner Emma Martins outlines why it is imperative that we apply a philosophical approach to matters of privacy.

Philosophy is, I would argue, something of interest in every area of our lives and privacy is no exception.

The word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Greek ‘philo’ – meaning love, and ‘sophos’ – meaning wisdom, so, philosophy is literally ‘love of wisdom’.

Philosophy is important because it allows us to develop critical and logical thinking skills which help us to decide what is and what isn’t true. Although it can be used to improve critical thinking and most people want to reason properly, it is often not given the priority it deserves because people who know the least about logic think they know quite a lot thanks to a  cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Most people think they reason properly and understand logic but very few feel a need to improve their understanding of these things.

But we surely need wisdom in all aspects of our lives? Especially when we are talking about subjects which get to the very heart of what it is to be human, to understand our world, our values, and ourselves?

Privacy has historical origins in philosophical discourse, most notably Aristotle’s distinction between the public sphere of political activity and the private sphere relating to family and domestic life.

Although the modern world would be unrecognisable to early philosophers, the principles and importance of philosophy; of wisdom and thought, have never been more relevant and the tools of philosophy can help us to think better, more clearly, and with greater perspective about almost everything.

Technology is giving rise to new and fundamental questions about human relationships, autonomy and liberty. A philosophical analysis of the social dimension of these advances will ensure that we have technology serving humankind, rather than humankind serving technology.

Privacy is increasingly a matter of real daily concern with revelations around surveillance, manipulation and security breaches. We live in a big data society where our ‘digital exhaust’ leaves behind a trail of data which gives a comprehensive picture of our lives in its wake – who we know, how we are feeling, our shopping habits, our travel plans…everything! The way in which that information can be scrutinised, profited from, and manipulated has the potential to affect individuals and societies. So how, as individuals and societies, should we frame discussions around rights and responsibilities in our data driven world? The answer must begin with a love of wisdom. Because at its heart, privacy is fundamentally a philosophical question as it relates to treating people fairly (or not) and what the right thing to do is.

Privacy itself is undeniably difficult to define and measure. If we are talking about the importance of privacy rights, where do those rights come from, what are they designed to do, can they be trumped and if so, by whom and in what circumstances? Philosophy in many cases is about deciding which goals and values are worthy to pursue – what ends are important. We can be scientific or pragmatic about pursuing goals in the most efficient manner, but it is important to have the right or most reasonable goals in the first place. Philosophy is a way of scrutinising ideas about which goals are the most important ones.

There are many challenging questions that surround the notion of privacy, but that is exactly why philosophical input is vital. If we reduce questions of privacy rights to binary matters of law, we risk hindering important discussions around the human condition.

Unlike other disciplines, philosophy does not seek to examine empirical facts. The tools of philosophy are important to individuals and to society because as long as we are not omniscient, facts by themselves are not a substitute for philosophy, just as philosophy is not a substitute for facts. Rather, it is about the intelligent and rational uses of those facts, and it is about the objective scrutiny of beliefs to see how clear and how reasonable they are in the light of the facts we have.

So philosophy encompasses not only logic but notions of a moral and ethical means of understanding. This goes a long way to explain the recent heightened interest around the role of ethics in matters of data privacy by data protection regulators, representing a long overdue acknowledgement that these are as much human, sociological challenges as they are legal and technical. Such interest is to be welcomed and nurtured.

So, whatever your profession or interest, let’s celebrate World Philosophy Day. For privacy professionals, do not underestimate the importance of wisdom. We must apply philosophical as well as legal analysis to the fast-evolving social, political and technological landscape if we are to engage with them as intelligent human beings.

Facts, knowledge and science help us live longer, philosophy helps us live better.

Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution. It represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance determines your destiny.