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Privacy as Knowing

By Jason M. Pittman, D.Sc.

Stock image of a woman typing her computer password

Privacy must end if we want to progress as a species. Towards that goal, first we must have a universal understanding of what privacy is so that our individual actions relate properly to a common collective. Previously, I've offered four potential constructs as explanations for what privacy is: non-intrusion, seclusion, limits, and control. It is my contention, however, that such constructs do not solely explain the modern idea of privacy.

Not all is lost though as I have one last construct to discuss: knowing.

The previous information privacy constructs established how we interact with another individual’s or a collective’s information. Likewise, the same privacy constructs seem to apply to an individual or collective interacting with our information. What is more, the prior four constructs exist in a positivist reality insofar as each presuppose that information exists and there is an external desire to interact with it.

Knowing makes no such assumptions. Further, knowing as a construct of what privacy is deals strictly with our perception of our information. Yet knowing is a slippery construct to discuss and requires careful definition

so that we can work from common ground. The best way to develop our definition may be by way of a simple thought experiment. Let's give this a try then.

Imagine you are sitting in front of your favorite computing device. You open an email application, create a new mail, and the email address of a random stranger automatically fills the recipient field. In the body of the email, some private information (your private information) appears. This is information that you have never shared with anyone; only you know it. In fact, you have worked diligently to keep others from interacting with the information (non-intrusion), kept the information secluded, limited the information to ourselves exclusively, and controlled the flow of this information.

Now, visualize clicking the Send button. Wooosh -- the email is off!

A few, tense moments pass before two messages appear in your inbox. The first message is a delivery notification. In other words, you know without any doubt that the stranger has received the email. The second message is a read receipt. That is, the stranger has absolutely read your secret.

Thus, the crux of this thought experiment is a simple question: when was privacy violated? Was privacy broken with the sending of the email? Did privacy shatter with the confirmed reception of the email? Perhaps privacy was lost with the confirmed reading of the email?

Furthermore, if you think that your privacy was violated with the sending of the email, what external agent caused the violation? Was it your email application? The computer? What about the myriad of network communication devices situated in between you and the recipient?

On the other hand, if you think that privacy was breached when the email was received, is it the act of reception that did so? Who received the email -- the receiver’s computing device or the human?

I contend that by knowing that the receiver read the email, if we assume that this stranger understands the information, then the seal of privacy is broken. That is, knowing that someone knows our information is the absence of privacy and therefore knowing that no one knows our information is privacy.

In this manner, knowing seems to be a robust explanation for what privacy is. However, knowing fails to resolve the discrepancies, inconsistencies, and paradoxes we discovered as worked through the five constructs. We need to address those next.