Re: poly: Pondering Privacy

From: Hal Finney <>
Date: Mon May 18 1998 - 10:41:18 PDT

A few more general thoughts on privacy, prompted by Robin's essay at

It may be worthwhile to step back and at least consider the larger
questions: What is privacy? Why do we value it? *Should* we value it
as much as we do?

The dictionary definition of privacy doesn't seem very useful. My
working definition is that privacy is control over information about
yourself. This is somewhat vague and it depends on the ill defined
concept of "information" but it seems to capture the essential idea.

One thing I have learned in discussing these issues with people is
that a substantial minority cares very little about privacy (or so
they say). These are people who would be perfectly comfortable living
in a fishbowl world, as long as everyone else was in the same
situation (or even if not, as with those who have chosen to live today
in front of 24 hour webcams). In fact, they are attracted to the idea
of being unable to keep secrets, of having everything out in the open,
of dealing with people on an open and honest level all the time: no
more lies, no more evasion, no more wondering who knows what and
weighing how much to reveal. These people love David Brin's
"transparent society" or the "truth machine" of Jim Halperin's novels.

There is of course also a group with the opposite view, people who
take extreme measures to protect their privacy. They try to avoid
leaving records as much as possible, using cash for transactions,
going out of town for purchases of books and magazines, perhaps
becoming self sufficient in various ways so as to reduce their
interactions with the outside world. If they know computers, they may
become knowledgable about cryptography and other technologies which
can allow them to communicate somewhat anonymously. To them, David's
transparent society is an Orwellian nightmare, a world in which life
would be a living hell.

To someone in the middle, I think the first group will tend to be seen
as naive idealists, pure and innocent, perhaps somewhat simple-minded.
The second group seems threatening, mysterious, possibly with latent
violent tendencies.

These reactions point to at least one reason for valuing privacy.
Protecting your privacy can give you a strategic advantage.
Preventing others from knowing your true capabilities or preferences
can increase your freedom of action and improve your chances of
beneficial outcomes.

I wonder how much differing views on privacy reflect this kind of
strategic reasoning. For most of us, our attitudes towards the
importance of privacy have the quality of an instinctive reaction.
Whether I am comfortable with having people know what I buy in the
store, what magazines I read, what I do in the living room or bedroom
does not seem to be based so much on an objective analysis of the
outcomes but is based more on a gut feeling.

It is possible that these instinctive feelings do capture the
strategic issues, that those who want to guard their privacy are the
ones who have the most to lose if it is lost, either because there is
information about them which would be actually harmful if it were
revealed, or because they are unusually capable of exploiting the
advantage which they gain by keeping others uncertain about their
lives. Similarly, those who are willing to discard privacy may be the
ones who have little to hide, and also who would be at a disadvantage
in a game of partial information due to weak strategic thinking

Received on Mon May 18 17:47:54 1998

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