There is a wide consensus that “privacy is in disarray” (Daniel Solove), or better: there is no consensus at all about whether privacy must be protected, what exactly must be protected and how. In all social literature about smart tools, privacy comes out as the number one ethical and legal problem. While legislators continue to develop ever tighter privacy regulations, there is also a widespread feeling that it is better to stop protecting privacy, because honest people have nothing to hide or because in a digital world privacy is a lost case anyway.
A deeper analysis of privacy shows that the problems with privacy are not generated by our booming information technologies. The problems with privacy started from the very first moments in the 19th century, when the Western world started its ambiguous attempts to protect “privacy” as a legal right.
What society wanted to protect by law was the possibility of individuals to develop their own life without physical or social pressure. Much attention was paid to preventing the social pressure of widespread gossip that could prevent people to deviate from what was seen as politically correct, could result in self-self-censorship or force people to live a hidden life. The fight against dissemination of information, and the right and duty to hide, was soon seen as the core method to protect privacy. This approach resulted in a host of attempts to identify which types of information are “personal” and must be hidden and how. The original inspiration is often lost out of sight. Our digital age has inherited the ambiguous approaches of former centuries and even emphasized the ill-framed focus on the dissemination pattern of listed information.
We cannot ignore the link between information and privacy. It is clear that gossip and information of all kinds can be used to hinder and damage people. It is surely wise to be cautious with many types of information and to implement different levels of data protection. But to tackle the deeper problems of privacy, we will have to integrate the original inspiration of protecting the individual creativity and the right to experiment and color outside the lines ‒ without being pushed to justify each and every action and exploration.