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I was struck by the connection between two apparently disparate pieces recently published in The New Yorker and The New York Times: Joshua Rothman’s essay on Virginia Woolf’s conception of privacy and Marc Rotenberg’s provocationcalling for a reexamination of large Internet companies and their data practices. Both pieces explore the challenges presented by privacy, and both appear to recognize the difficulty that individuals and societies have in getting the balance between private and public—the line between protecting and sharing—just right. Both pieces illustrate the complexity and challenges we face in calibrating privacy within innovative technologies and shifting social norms.

Rothman offers a fascinating perspective of how novelist Virginia Woolf understood privacy. He finds Woolf to be intrigued with the inner privacy that we all maintain—the “certain resolute innerness” that we wall off from others, even spouses and confidantes. In Rothman’s view, Woolf believed that artists draw their creativity from this “final redoubt of privacy” and that we are all willing to pay a steep price—a lack of true intimacy—for maintaining an “austere … inner life.” Rothman examines how Woolf was intrigued by urban life, with its practical obscurity, which we now understand thanks to Woody Hartzog, and how walking in a city was “solitude-on-display.”

Rothman (and Woolf) touch upon one of the fundamental truths in the field of privacy: that we all seek protection for our innermost selves. We hold some thoughts apart from our communities and our families, indeed sometimes even ourselves. We explore and experience some things in a deeply private way. Drawing the boundary—or setting the balance—between this “resolute innerness” and the external world is a constant human activity. Every day, we make choices about what to share and what to keep within our “final redoubt”.

But what happens if our ability to understand this balance between public and private is disrupted by external forces? What if there are factors that would possibly change our decisions about privacy but are unknown to us? What if there is an invisible thumb on the scale of privacy? This is the main thrust of a challenge issued by Marc Rotenberg in The New York Times.

Rotenberg argues that the terms of our relationship with the information economy are constantly shifting and we, and our public policy makers, are ill-equipped to manage the dizzying speed with which technology and business practices advance. While I am not so cynical about the motivations of large tech companies, I agree with Rotenberg. The pace of change is far too fast for average citizens to understand the contexts in which their privacy is in the balance, and our public policy makers cannot match the speed of innovation. Stated differently, the boundaries between public and private are shifting, and we are not always aware of when and how the shift is occurring. Helen Nissenbaum captured this idea—that privacy norms are more than a set of concrete rules and constantly adapt and evolve to changing circumstances—eloquently in her book Privacy in Context.

This could leave us with a disconcerting thought: that the protections we think we have surrounding our inner lives are not actually protecting us. Here’s a good example: think about the context of anonymity in urban life that Woolf so admired. In today’s city—or a city in the near future—social media, facial recognition and location tracking all erode our understanding of when and how we are in a private or practically obscure space. Walking down the street, immersed in our own inner world, may not be such a private, or anonymous, experience anymore.

This is not a new phenomenon.

Technology perpetually advances, and humankind has always responded with new norms, new laws—even new technologies—for maintaining the fundamental human truth of privacy. Indeed, Brandeis and Warren wrote “The Right to Privacy” in part to respond to the shifting balance in personal privacy created by the introduction of portable cameras, flexible film and mass media. Alan Westin wrote Privacy and Freedom to respond to the new privacy concerns associated with the proliferation of data and the rise of mainframe computing.

The back-and-forth pattern is clear: technological innovation challenges our conceptions of privacy, and then new thinking emerges to define how we balance the public and the private within the new reality. What is different today is the frequency of this pattern. Technology that previously would be assimilated over a generation is now introduced and brought to a mass market with dizzying speed. Society has an increasingly difficult time responding with new norms quickly enough to engage this moving target.

And so we find ourselves in a shifting era of privacy, at a point where the thoughts of Virginia Woolf and Marc Rotenberg intersect. I have to believe that Rotenberg would be an unabashed champion of Woolf’s valuation of the inner, private self. I also believe that Woolf would be troubled by the flux and opacity of the public/private balance in the information economy that Rotenberg works tirelessly to expose.

But perhaps this very flux of the public/private balance is the essential truth of privacy? Perhaps our current debate is just the most recent chapter in a continuing saga of humans sharing or shielding information?

Joshua Rothman finds this idea in Woolf’s novels:

… there is no final, satisfying way to balance our need to be known with our need to be alone. The balance is always uncertain and provisional; it’s always a matter of dissatisfaction, give-and-take, and sacrifice. Because an artist’s privacy is a state of mind, rather than a matter of law, there are no rules to help us master it. It’s up to each of us to balance the risks and rewards—to trade, in right proportion, loneliness for freedom, explicability for mystery and the knowable for the unknown within ourselves.

I find this view compelling and invigorating. It suggests the field of privacy will need to grow and mature as technology continually upsets the balance of what is public and private. It suggests there will be no definitive laws, frameworks or technologies to “solve the problem” of privacy. Rather, we will see a continuing need for experts—academics, policy-makers and professionals—whose role it is to understand and navigate safely the variables that go into the balance of privacy—law and policy, technological innovation, citizen and customer expectations, cultural norms and jurisdictional variation … to name a few.

This view of privacy also requires agency of the individual and responsibility of the organizations using data. Individuals need to have awareness of, and an ability to act upon, those practices that shift the balance of privacy. We each may assess our privacy balance in different ways, but we all need to have a reasonable understanding of how technology disrupts that balance. It follows that companies have a responsibility to design products that enable such agency. More specifically, it suggests that the vast domains of IT, design and engineering need to become much, much more conversant in the field of privacy.

It suggests that we, privacy professionals, have much work ahead.

About the Art

The image above is Cities Desiring to Merge by Tadashi Moriyama. It captures the frenetic complexity of the boundaries between technology and humanity. The piece is featured in a show dedicated to Moriyama at the Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland, ME, from August 1 to 30.

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