Keeping humanity in the privacy debate

An exploration of the basic understanding of privacy from solitude to intimacy


Three weeks ago, my dog ate a sock and got very sick. We knew something was wrong because she started acting oddly – hiding in a corner and getting very quiet. We ended up in a veterinary hospital for surgery to remove said sock, and I am happy to report that all is now well again.

As I sat down today to write this first blog post for CSO, I realized my poor black lab’s experience was a great way to introduce the topic of privacy. Too often in society today, we think of privacy in terms of something that has been irretrievably lost, something that has been taken from us with the unceasing march of Moore’s Law and the prying eyes of marketers. Or we think of privacy in terms of a Faustian bargain with national security – that we can only have one or the other, and never both.

As it turns out, privacy is much older and more elemental – more human – than any recent debate over the topic.

[ ALSO: You are responsible for your own Internet privacy ]

My dog, struggling with the pain of a sock blocking up her insides, sought solitude. She retreated from the family when she felt vulnerable and in pain. And while she has no concept of privacy, she sought something that we might recognize today as that very thing. My dog wanted privacy.

As humans, we seek solitude when we feel vulnerable. Sometimes, this is related to physical vulnerability. We seek to exclude ourselves from our societies when we are sick, or in moments of particular risk (think: sleeping, toileting, sex, etc.). But we also seek to exclude ourselves when we feel emotionally vulnerable. We seek private space to explore new identities or ideas.

Privacy gets more complicated, however, when dealing with more than one person. In relationships, we need privacy to create intimacy and trust. We need the ability to communicate in ways that are private and secure (more on the difference between the two later). Without privacy in our communications and relationships, our ability to create successful societies would crumble. We simply would not have the trust and confidence in each other that is necessary to keep communities together.

[ MORE: Privacy: Is it dead or just being renegotiated? ]

These ideas of privacy – that humans seek solitude to protect their vulnerabilities and provide space for reflection and innovation, and that societies need mechanisms that allow trust and confidence to blossom – are deeply embedded in history. Indeed, we find parables that extol the virtue of protecting privacy throughout the Torah, the Bible and Greek mythology. Respecting privacy is, without question, an ancient idea.

So how do we reconcile this ancient idea with today’s technology and data-driven marketplace? How do we manage privacy when we have seemingly conflicting interests to protect systems, even nations? And how do we navigate the increasing risks that privacy creates – such as regulatory fines, brand damage, and customer hostility?

I firmly believe that, in order to unravel the trickier dilemmas of privacy in society today, one needs a solid understanding of how closely privacy is linked to our freedom, our humanity, and even the great innovative engine of American progress.

My black lab still has no understanding of privacy. She is back to chasing squirrels from the bird feeder in our back yard. But privacy is like that, a condition we seek when we need it most.

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