The whys and wherefores of privacy
Privacy is a sensitive subject to which people attach great importance. The only problem is that they do not know exactly why. Still, if it is so important then it is also necessary to establish why that is the case. It is therefore the task of ethicists to clarify the relevant theoretical arguments and practical implications.
Any topics that touch on privacy, such as the electronic files on patients (efp) and cameras in public spaces therefore soon become topics of heated social and political debate. People appreciate the advantages of new information technology but are at the same time alarmed to realize that so much is known about them. It is often emotions that play a decisive role because the relevant arguments are difficult to formulate not to mention weigh up.
“The privacy concept has thus become an umbrella term”, Professor Jeroen van den Hoven remarks. “Everyone interprets the concept differently. In discussions fruitless dichotomies often arise. One group is against camera surveillance, large interlinked databases, and so on whilst the other group is in favour, the argument being: I have got nothing to hide.”
According to Van den Hoven this divide is symptomatic of a broader difference of opinion in society between liberals on the one hand who give priority to the rights of the individual and the communitarians on the other hand, that is to say, those for whom collective and community interests weigh heavier. “That cannot be resolved by technology but rather by taking a different approach to the privacy issue.”
“In society there is simply too much that is deemed worthy of protection, from children and medieval manuscripts to nuclear reactors”, Van den Hoven explains. “The access conditions and the limitations surrounding how we deal with these matters are all regulated and laid down because we know that otherwise everything will go wrong. There are all kinds of reasons to justify such protection: a thing can be damaged, stolen or deployed to cause damage to others. Much the same can be said to apply to personal data. Knowledge about others is power. Indeed, there are scores of other moral reasons that can be given for protecting personal information apart from that of wishing to prevent damage.”
The questions surrounding the need to protect data are not completely new. They fall into a long tradition associated with security in which interests are constantly weighed up. If the different interests are carefully unravelled seemingly insurmountable problems can be made understandable. In the case of the electronic files on patients, for instance, this means making a good analysis of all the people involved, together with all the types of data before then going on to decide who may justifiably have access to what. The designers also have to ask themselves what kinds of things could go wrong if under certain conditions certain people or bodies were to gain access to certain information. In this way a big “does the efp threaten privacy?” debate can be reduced to discrete questions and manageable points such as “should the chemist be allowed to see my lung X-rays?”
Van den Hoven gives a further example: “With the electronic files for children one would not want children to be stigmatised by the contents their whole lives long. Those are demands that are harder to unravel than those pertaining to who may look at what information, and when. Here, too, it is simply a matter of reducing broader questions to smaller, clearer sub-issues such as the required archiving periods.”
Generally speaking, therefore, and in the most abstract sense, questions about the relevance of privacy are difficult to answer since they issue from people’s fundamental views about individuality and community. By dividing up the bigger questions, though, and pragmatically answering the discrete sub-questions it does become possible to give substance to the protecting of people’s personal lives.