Holistic and Pragmatic Approaches to Privacy Theorization

theoryandpracticeImmanuel Kant’s essay “On the Common Saying: ‘This May be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice'” argues that theory is central to understanding the world around us and that, moreover, attempts to say that ‘theory doesn’t apply to the world as such’ are generally misguided. Part of the reason that Kant can so firmly advocate that theory and reality are co-original emerge from his monological rationalism, but at the same time time we see him argue that the clearest way to bring theory and practice into alignment is with more theory – rather than adopting ‘parsimonious’ explanations of the world we would be better off to develop rigorous and detailed accounts of the world.

Parsimony seems to be a popular term in the social sciences; it lets researchers develop concise theories that can be applied to particular situations, lets them isolate and speak about particular variables, and lends itself to broad(er) public accessibility of the theory in question. At the same time, theorists critique many such parsimonious accounts because they commonly fail to offer full explanations of social phenomena!

The complexity of privacy issues in combination with a desire for parsimony has been a confounding issue for privacy theorists. Nailing down what ‘privacy’ actually refers to has been, and continues to be, a nightmarish task insofar as almost every definition has some limiting factor. This problem is (to my mind) compounded when you enter online, or digital, environments where developing a complete understanding of how data flows across systems, what technical languages’ demands underlie data processing systems, and developing a comprehensive account of confidentiality and trust, are all incredibly challenging and yet essential for theorization. This is especially true when we think of a packet as being like post card (potentially one with its content encrypted) – in theory anyone could be capturing and analyzing packet streams and data that is held on foreign servers.

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Draft – Who Gives a ‘Tweet’ About Privacy?

twittercapacityThis is a full draft of the paper on Twitter and privacy that I’ve been developing over the past few weeks, entitled ‘Who Gives a ‘Tweet’ About Privacy?’ It uses academic privacy literature to examine Twitter and the notion of reasonable expectations of privacy in public, and is written to help nuance privacy discussions surrounding the discourse occuring on Twitter (and, implicitly, similar social networking and blogging sites). The paper focuses on concepts of privacy and, as such, avoids deep empirical analyses of how the term ‘privacy’ is used by particular members of the social networking environment. Further, the paper avoids delving into the web of legal cases that could be drawn on to inform this discussion. Instead, it is theoretically oriented around the following questions:

  1. Do Twitter’s users have reasonable expectations to privacy when tweeting, even though these tweets are the rough equivalent of making statements in public?
  2. If Twitter’s user base should hold expectations to privacy, what might condition these expectations?

The paper ultimately suggests that Daniel Solove’s taxonomy of privacy, most  recently articulated in Understanding Privacy, offers the best framework to respond to these question. Users of Twitter do have reasonable expectations to privacy, but such expectations are conditioned by juridical understandings of what is and is not reasonable. In light of this, I conclude by noting that Solove’s use of law to recognize norms is contestable. Thus, while privacy theorists may adopt his method (a focus on privacy problems to categorize types of privacy infractions), they might profitably condition how and why privacy norms are established – court rulings and dissenting opinions may not be the best foundation upon which to rest our privacy claims – by turning to non-legal understandings of norm development, degeneration, and mutation.

Paper can be downloaded here.

Twitter and Privacy in Social Context


[Note: this is an early draft of the third section of a paper I’m working on titled ‘Who Gives a Tweet about Privacy’ and builds from an earlier posted sections titled ‘Privacy, Dignity, Copyright and Twitter‘ and ‘Twitter and Statutory Notions of Privacy‘. The final sections will be posted as I draft them.]

Simitis recognizes privacy as an issue concerning all of society. As a consequence, his position on the topic is differentiated from those of Westin, Warren, and Brandeis by asserting that privacy is essential for establishing and maintaining constitutional infrastructures. In this section, we take up the ‘social’ element of privacy, exploring it in more depth and to consider its role in establishing citizen-solidarity. In addition, we consider privacy as a contextualized norm that attaches different expectations of privacy to particular situations and encounters. While social-contextual accounts establish reasonable expectations to privacy in public, our hopefulness surrounding these accounts wears thin because the selected scholars exhibit an under theorized conceptualization of how socio-contextual norms are established. Effectively, without an account of how socio-contextual norms are developed in pluralistic environments we are left with little understanding of how to read privacy norms in public spaces like Twitter. Thus, while understanding privacy as contextual integrity does establish reasonable expectations (note the plural) of privacy, the multiplicity of such instantiations renders such understandings of limited usefulness for juridical application in contemporary pluralistic nation-states. Continue reading

Twitter and Statutory Notions of Privacy

protectionpersonaldataright[Note: this is an early draft of the second section of a paper I’m working on titled ‘Who Gives a Tweet about Privacy’ and builds from an earlier posted section titled ‘Privacy, Dignity, Copyright and Twitter‘ Other sections will follow as I draft them.]

Towards a Statutory Notion of Privacy

Whereas Warren and Brandeis explicitly built a tort claim to privacy (and can be read as implicitly laying the groundwork for a right to privacy), theorists such as Alan Westin attempt to justify a claim to privacy that would operate as the bedrock for a right to privacy. Spiros Simitis recognizes this claim, but argues that privacy should be read as both an individual and a social issue. The question that arises is whether or not these writers’ respective understandings of privacy capture the normative expectations of speaking in a public space, such as Twitter; do their understandings of intrusion/data capture recognize the complexities of speaking in public spaces and provide a reasonable expectation of privacy that reflects people’s interests to keep private some, but not all, of the discussions they have in public?

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Privacy: A Quick Lit Review

This isn’t a ‘full’ post, in the sense that I’m not actually going to get into any issues. Instead I’m going to put up a list of texts that are particularly helpful in getting into debates surrounding privacy, as well as some texts that deal with privacy as it relates to the process of digitization. I want to do this for two reasons: First, because I am curious to see how I would change this list in a year or two’s time, and second because when I was getting into my Master’s project I couldn’t find anything like the list I’ve prepared.

For the usual purposes of full disclosure/covering my ass, I’ll note that this list should be read as something ‘ongoing’/’in development’. It’s not comprehensive of everything that I’ve ever read and only reflects what I’ve been exposed to up until this point.

Core Books

Philosophical Dimensions of Privacy: An Anthology by Ferdinand D. Schoeman.
Somewhat amusingly, I finally got this book just a month or so after receiving my MA. Why is this the first book on the list? Because it would have saved me a metric buttload of time in going to primary sources to ‘catch up’ on the genealogy of privacy debates. Schoeman has done an exceptional job in collecting major issues and debates in privacy, drawing from prominent philosophical and legal theorists. The downside: it was published in 1984, so it misses the more contemporary discussions in the ongoing debates surrounding privacy. That said, its indispensable if you’re looking for a solid first academic discussion of privacy.

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