Defining and Understanding Privacy

by | Privacy Fundamentals

What, exactly, is privacy? What does it mean? What do we understand when we describe something as “private”? Do we mean secret? Do we mean personal? Defining privacy has puzzled minds far greater than mine, resulting in a host of grand and diverse definitions of the term.

In Tristia, the Roman poet Ovid wrote, “Bene vixit, bene qui latuit.” In case your Latin is rusty, that literally translates to: “To live well is to live concealed.” My interpretation is different: “To live well is to live in privacy.”

Is something private also secret? Certainly, the reverse is not true: we can have many secrets that are not private! They may be secrets of others, secret negotiations, secret deals, and so on.

Is it data coupled with our personhood? If so, is all personal data private? What about our name? Are there degrees of privacy?

Let’s start with our perennial friends at Merriam-Webster. Their primary definition of privacy reads as follows “a: the quality or state of being apart from company or observation: SECLUSION; b: freedom from unauthorized intrusion.

That works but it’s really just scratching the surface. One of my favorite definitions—and yes, I am That Guy who has a “favorite” definition of privacy!—is Wiktionary’s definition:

  1. The state of being secluded from the presence, sight, or knowledge of others.
  2. Freedom from unwanted or undue disturbance of one’s private life.
  3. Freedom from damaging publicity, public scrutiny, surveillance, and disclosure of personal information, usually by a government or a private organization.
  4. (obsolete) A place of seclusion.
  5. (obsolete, law) A relationship between parties seen as being a result of their mutual interest or participation in a given transaction, contract, etc.; Privity.
  6. (obsolete) Secrecy.
  7. (obsolete) A private matter; a secret.

Definitions of privacy have evolved over time, and our understanding of the concept is constantly changing. Therefore, it would be naive to assume that the entirety of privacy as a concept (what we might call “capital P Privacy”) can be rendered via a legal definition, complex or not, or a dictionary entry.

Privacy has been, and remains, the subject of rigorous academic study. Anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, and other disciplines have been looking into the concept and developing their own definitions and models to describe Privacy. It is clearly out of scope for this blog to get into details on the academic research on privacy or do a literature review. For our purposes a few drops from the ocean will suffice.

The two giants in privacy research are considered to be Alan Westin (1929–2013), professor of public law and government at Columbia University, and Irwin Altman (1930), professor and chairman of the Psychology Department of the University of Utah, now emeritus. Westin’s book Privacy and Freedom (1968) is considered to be the foundational text on the subject. Westin defines privacy as follows: “the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.”

Westin goes on to describe four states of privacy, and four functions or purposes of privacy. He defines the privacy states are solitude, intimacy, anonymity, and reserve, and the purposes as personal autonomy, emotional release, self-evaluation, and limited and protected communication.

Westin’s position is that privacy operates at three levels: The individual, the group, and the organizational level. He also constrains his theory of privacy as applicable to western societies only. In 2002, Westin proposed what’s known as the Westin segmentation, classifying the public into three groups: the privacy fundamentalists, who place a premium on privacy and make up about 25 percent of the population; the privacy unconcerned, who couldn’t care less about privacy and make up about 20 percent of the population; and the privacy pragmatists, the remaining 55 percent, who are aware of the trade-off between privacy and external offerings.

For his part, Altman outlined his privacy regulation theory in The Environment and Social Behavior (1975). Put very simply, privacy regulation theory has to do with the fact that people have different privacy standards at different times and in different contexts. For example, your definition of what constitutes “private information” in your relationship with your spouse is clearly different than in your relationship with your children, and it’s also different with your boss and yet again with your coworkers.

According to Altman, this phenomenon is due to “the selective control of access to the self,” which has five properties:

  • Temporal dynamic process of interpersonal boundaries (feelings about privacy change based on context);
  • Desired and actual levels of privacy (what we hope for and what we get can differ);
  • Non-monotonic function of privacy (what constitutes the “optimal” amount can increase or decrease);
  • Bi-directional nature of privacy (privacy involves both “inputs” and “outputs”); and
  • Bi-level nature of privacy (individual privacy is different from group).

Altman went on to describe additional features of privacy, including units of privacy, its dialectic nature, and desired versus achieved privacy.

Altman and Westin share a view of privacy as a very dynamic state with multiple inputs and outputs—essentially a system in constant state of rebalancing, depending on the environment. Their work has spurred both rigorous academic debates and hundreds of researchers moving the field forward by expanding on these theories, adding and elaborating on the privacy features, as well as driving a lot of experimental work all over the world. The majority results of this research to date seem to validate Westin and Altman, building on their solid foundational work.

Also of note is Nancy Marshall’s work, for instance her article “Privacy and Environment” (1972). Marshall developed the Privacy Preference Scale, the first of its kind, based on her identification of six privacy states: intimacy, solitude, anonymity, reserve, seclusion, and not neighboring. Communication studies scholar Virginia Kupritz helped introduce objective environmental measurements of privacy, further expanding Altman’s work by reorganizing it and introducing additional psychological and cognitive variables. Kuptritz also did significant research on the architectural effect on privacy.

Most recently, Tobias Dienlin, a scholar in communications science and media psychology at the University of Hohenheim, has proposed a Privacy Process Model that attempts to integrate all major work on privacy into one cohesive model. It integrates the work of Westin, Altman, and numerous others, and differentiates between “factual privacy context and subjective privacy perceptions,” a distinction that Dienlin posits as important both online and offline. His model has four privacy dimensions—informational, social, psychological, and physical—that he argues are equally applicable to both physical and digital worlds.

As you would expect, these debates and work on privacy are far from over. For that matter, they may never be over. Not only does technology continue to evolve, but so do we, across cultures and geographies. The end result is a constantly changing landscape in which we must navigate carefully, constantly challenging our values and protecting what we think, at the time, is near and dear to our identity as people, community members, and value-creating citizens.


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