Monday, March 23, 2009

On privacy and liberty

The revelation that a quarter of all public sector databases violate our right to privacy coincides with my own attempt to crystallise my thoughts on this whole matter: what is privacy and why do we tend to guard it as something important?

When I say 'we', this is perhaps a little ethno-centric. India Knight argues here that to place a high premium on privacy is a quintessentially English trait. I don't know about that - I'm not English and I certainly value my privacy highly. But it is certainly true to say that not only is privacy not valued everywhere as much as it is in the West, my understanding is that some cultures don't even have a word for it.

Furthermore, even here - where we would assume the word is readily understood - some would argue that it is not a distinct entity; when people talk about 'privacy', the reductionist view would be to argue that this is really referring to a cluster of other values that people hold or rights that they have - such as the right to own property or to be free from arbitrary searches.

I wouldn't claim competence to argue the point because I do history rather than philosophy and from this perspective I would have thought that there can be no dispute that not only has the concept of privacy been understood and valued but that states of a liberal disposition have included in the legal order provisions to protect the violation of privacy either by other individuals, corporations or the state itself.

The essence of privacy is the desire to reveal oneself selectively. There are a number of reasons - some of which I would have thought inescapable - why people would want to do this. Privacy is essential for the maintenance of important social relationships. Carrying out a vocation depends on it for example, because this has not to do with the revelation of our full personality but with the execution of duties. It is difficult to see how this would be possible without some level of privacy. I can't imagine that there's any teacher reading this who could disagree that their job would become more difficult, even impossible, if our charges knew the intimate details of our private lives.

Privacy is also essential to trust. This can work on a number of different levels but the example of the ghastly Julie Myserson illustrates the destruction that can be wrought to even the most profound of human relationships when one party chooses to be indiscriminate with information that another would rather was revealed on a more selective basis.

I think it goes without saying that privacy is essential for the development of intimate relationships. More specifically I'd argue that while sex and procreation is obviously possible without it, the cultivation of the erotic is not. This point serves as a convenient juncture to make the argument for privacy on the basis of liberty - as a sphere in which people may exercise their autonomy without the stare and disapproval of the majority. Perhaps some people reading this might argue that laws prohibiting sodomy, for example, are not a grotesque invasion of people's privacy - but no such person could claim to be a liberal.

Yet human nature being what it is, the desire to reveal oneself selectively cannot be considered entirely benign. People can and do use the shield of privacy to conceal the abuse of spouses and children - as well as crimes and intended crimes against wider society. It is for this reason that no reasonable person - and no legal order - has ever considered the right to privacy to be inviolable. However, what has been customary in relatively liberal societies such as ours is for the law to strike a balance - usually conveyed in legal norms that express themselves in concepts such as the presumption of innocence, reasonable suspicion and probable cause.

If you feel you're reading a patronising remedial lesson on the importance of privacy please don't be offended because this was not intended for you. Rather it is directed at one or two individuals who have taken to arguing - not that privacy has to be limited in the interests of security, not that we have the balance wrong between preserving the autonomy of the individual and the interests of the polity - but that the right to privacy either is unimportant; or positively malign because it serves only for preserving privilege; or even that it doesn't actually exist at all.

It is this last point that Rafael Behr seems to be arguing in a piece I've linked on a previous occasion:
"We are so atomised and anonymous that hundreds of thousands of us routinely invade our own privacy online, in search of recognition, to reinforce our identities, to find a voice. We post intimate details of our sexual preferences and political views on YouTube. No one cares. We are bits of cultural flotsam on a vast ocean of liberty."
This is arrant nonsense. You can't invade your own privacy. We may divulge in various places more than others would feel comfortable doing but you'll still find that we are still exercising our prerogative to reveal ourselves selectively. For example, I do this when my partner and myself go dogging: while we're exposing ourselves more than most people might find decorous, I'm still careful to pick a secluded spot and invite a select clientele to masturbate while they watch us having sex in the back of the car.

I'm only joking, I don't go dogging. But if you understand that if I did, I certainly wouldn't discuss it on this space, you'll understand the point being made here.

Someone else long on injunctions to get historical perspective whilst being surprisingly short on the actual history of liberty as a political cause is Connor Gearty:
"The idea that the state is an unwarranted assault on individual freedom is not a progressive one. This kind of libertarianism works to protect privilege by cloaking the advantages of the rich in the garb of personal autonomy, individual freedom and the "human right" to privacy. It is not at all surprising that the Convention on Modern Liberty is attracting strong support from those on the right of politics, politicians who hanker after a golden age of rights for the rich and responsibilities for everyone else. But the left, or at least those parts of it that believe in the progressive power of the state, need to be more careful about defining exactly where they stand when they join in this chorus of dissent."
This is but an excerpt from a fairly long and frankly dismal piece. Where to begin? First of all, while I dare say there's those of an anarchist disposition that believe the existence of the modern state per se is "an unwarranted assault on individual freedom", I would have thought they are a rather marginal constituency. So marginal I don't think it would be out of place to accuse Professor Gearty of engaging with a straw man here.

Then there's the ad hominem arguments. Apart from the basic fallacy of this position, and the fact that the Convention of Modern Liberty hardly forms an exhaustive cohort of people who are concerned about liberty, it isn't obvious to me - as an outsider - that the 'rightwinger' label is even accurate. I don't know - maybe I'm missing something but the list of partners? It includes Amnesty, Compass, The Fabian Society, Human Rights Watch, Index on Censorship, Liberty, The Observer, Private Eye, Red Pepper, and the Work Foundation - amongst others. Phew - right bunch of Nazis there right enough.

Neither did Gearty attempt to flesh out his accusation that only those intent on preserving privilege are concerned about privacy. It might be in poor taste for him to try this now - given that it seems clear that it is in fact the most vulnerable in our society, particularly children, that have been adversely affected by this government's database blunders. Why anyone is surprised by this is beyond me. It was ever thus when power is concentrated to the centre in this way - and those presently making pseudo-leftist justifications for the expansion of state power might want to bear this is mind the next time they feel the need to draw from the wells of their own ignorance and lecture the rest of us about 'historical perspective'.

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