1997 ASIS Mid-Year Meeting Preview
The Emotionality of Privacy
by Barbara Flood
© 1997 ASIS

Privacy, especially the right to personal privacy, is a highly emotional issue. It is not an exaggeration to call privacy an explosive issue in the political, social and personal sense. Privacy is clearly related to information and as such is of great concern to information scientists and information professionals.

Privacy is emotional because it is related to the very notion of the self. The self has been addressed by philosophers, and later by psychologists, in Western thinking since the early Greek philosophers. The self is also addressed by all religions in a more or less direct way. The self is what thinks, feels and believes. People believe that they have control of what is known about the self.

The amount of information revealed about the self is related to the amount of control the person feels in a given situation, as well as the amount of trust. The smaller and more intimate the situation, the more likely one is to sacrifice privacy and reveal the self. Intimate relationships sacrifice privacy in exchange for information about the self. Families are tied together by information about members. Friendships exchange personal information and cede a certain amount of privacy. The larger the social aggregate, however, the less the individual is willing to sacrifice privacy and the more the individual needs to retain privacy in order to maintain a sense of self. As societies have become larger, personal privacy has become an issue. As we, the global village, develops, it is time that privacy be addressed by information professionals and others.

When the matter of privacy is examined, it becomes clear that it is no simple thing. It is not a question of one item but rather the summing of items -- a little bit here, a little bit there. Thus when needed, we submit to an examination by a proctologist without claims of privacy, knowing the proctologist will share the findings with the hospital records department and with third-party insurance carriers. We have signed a release permitting this. We draw the line, however, when the physician discusses findings with friends. The findings of the proctologist are our information.

Similarly, we draw the line when medical information is shared with the press (even with attribution). There is something salacious about the media reporting the results of psychohistorical analysis -- a favorite of humanist scholars for a while. It is even more discomfiting when the media report psychiatric analyses of public figures or of suspected criminals. Clearly such public speculations about ordinary citizens are unethical as well as illegal. Psychiatrists are supposed to deal with the self, and the self is private. Some of us are even uncomfortable when the media interview people who have just suffered tragic losses. This is real emotion and presumably the public loves it, but what does it do to the subject?

It is accceptable to give the state license bureau information about the make and model of one's automobile, yet there is something vaguely objectionable to having the media comment about one's car. This is something to share with friends and acquaintances as we choose -- something we should control. It is no fun to arrive at the office ready to share our pleasure only to find everyone already knows it. Similarly, it is permissible for industries to give tests of skills, knowledge, even intelligence and personality, to prospective job applicants. After all, the applicants have a choice as to whether to apply; however, making findings from such tests public is forbidden.

It is acceptable for American Express, VISA, MasterCard, etc., to have a running record of where and what purchases have been made, not to say outstanding credit balances, but quite another for this information to become available to others. It is one thing for taxing authorities to have information about income sources (is there a choice?), but quite another to sell this information to marketing firms. It is one thing to give information to a mortgage company about one's resources, but quite another for the agency to make the information available. It is one thing for sales agents working for real estate firms to have access to databases about the value of one's house, what was paid and what the taxes are, but another for this data to become generally available.

This is to say nothing of the cumulations of all these data into what we have called peoplebases, that is, databases that have information about people listed under the names of the specific individuals. Now that these peoplebases are in machine-readable form, it is all to easy to cumulate the data from them into individual profiles of extraordinary detail.

Somehow we know all this, but do not want to think about it; it is too unpleasant. Yet we know that individual items of information about the self, freely given or required by law, are being shared among private organizations. One has only to consider the volume of so-called junk mail to realize how many mailing lists are being sold; such information is a valuable commodity. Information is being shared among government agencies to save the cost of collecting it more than once. This is cost-effective and fiscally conservative at a time when fiscal restraint is obviously needed. Not-for-profits are selling their mailing lists to raise needed revenue.

Such sharing of information impinges upon individual privacy. There is no longer control of one's private self. Personal privacy either does not now exist or soon will not. The reason privacy is an emotional issue is fear of loss of control. The fear is real. Philosophical, psychological and religious notions of the self will have to be rethought in the light of this loss.

Consequently, this is a ripe area for research within information science. It might be useful to appropriate the Johari Window from the human relations area as a model for thinking about loss of personal privacy. As illustrated in the diagram, the Johari Window is a two-by-two square. The axes are self and others. The quadrant that is both known to self and to others is the public self. There is a private self known to self and not to others. A blind self is known to others but not known to ourselves. The remaining quadrant is the unknown area.

This model gives a vocabulary and model for conceptualizing what is happening to the self with the losses to personal privacy. The public self, which used to be under our own control, is slipping into control by others, despite the fact that we have given permission for each item of information. The private self is shrinking as more and more data go into the public domain. We wonder about that blind area. Do others know that much about us that we do not know? What does all this mean for our notions of ourselves?

Social scientists, including information scientists, need to question how the erosion of personal privacy is changing patterns not only of self perception, but also of social interaction.

Barbara Flood is consulting psychologist with the Association for Retarded Citizens/Philadelphia Developmental Disability Corporation.

Privacy and the Self The Johari Window Known to Self Not Known to Self Known to Others Not Known to Others Public Self Blind Self Private Self Unknown Self