Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Individual Privacy: A Social Construction?


In order to change the massive trend of disappearing privacy, many aspects of our daily lives must change. However, before we begin to discuss the actual implementations of privacy protections, we must deal with the ideals that have led to the current situation. The ultimate ideal of individuality plays a central role. While it is true that we are all biologically unique, the consequences of a blind adherence to this belief of true individuality are dire from a privacy standpoint. We are social animals, and are defined by the people around us. The sooner this idea is accepted, the sooner we can more accurately assess the dangers to our privacy. This paper will discuss a few of the deductions arising from the individuality ideal, how they obfuscate the privacy concerns every individual should have, and why a social-creature view is required.

Because I am an individual I am unique

Individualism has played an enormous role in American history. From the American dream of the self-made man to the "Be All You Can Be" army slogan, the emphasis has always been on "you." While we are by definition unique, both biologically and environmentally (no two people have ever been exposed to the exact same experiences), this uniqueness is not as drastic as people assume. The privacy concern that enters here is an assumption that because we are all unique, no one can ever truly "know" us. Thus, we are willing to let the world into our life through sites such as Facebook, as that is only what "we" want others to see. The belief is that your uniqueness is still protected because not only is your Facebook profile not a full representation of you, but also that it would be impossible for anyone to know more than you want them to know. This reasoning is flawed. The major misconception underlying this flaw is that individuals are not predictable. Because individuals in fact are predictable, information regarding that individual's past action becomes relevant, and additionally the past actions of others becomes invaluable as a tool to make these predictions. This misconception seems to arise from the following logic: because every person is uniquely different, no person is predictable; and because no person is predictable, no information about others can be used to form predictions about anyone else.

Because I am unique I am unpredictable

This unpredictability belief seems to stem from the idea that no person ever always knows either what he is going to do, or why he is going to do it. If this is the case, could someone else possibly know this? The answer is yes, and we fail to see that because we do not recognize the unconscious patterns which we all follow. Take buying a new piece of technology as an example. How much research do you normally put into this? How long from the time you start looking into the technology does it take you to buy? These factors and many more are easily recordable based on your website visitation patterns and Google searches. Could someone influence your decision on what piece of technology to buy (or where you buy it from) by having access to this information? If you are typically an impulse buyer and Google returns an advertisement for a "One-day Sale," might you buy that item even if the "One-day Sale" price is actually more expensive than it would normally be? This does not seem a very dangerous occurrence at first, after all you are only spending some extra money, but what does this say about your autonomy? If others can strongly influence your behavior through this information, it is not a leap to say you are not in complete control of your actions. Where the patterns of your behavior are observable, what you do next can be simply an issue of steering by others. This becomes even more dangerous once we accept that information about others makes our behavior patterns even clearer.

Because everyone is unpredictable, no information about others can be used to make predictions about me

While this is the logical following from a belief that everyone is unpredictable, we must now consider the consequences of removing that erroneous foundational belief. If people are predictable, how useful is the information data-miners have about others? In the end, it may actually be more valuable than information about the individual. The entire structuring of generalized patterns relies upon the gathering of multiple data sets. Just as no experiment based on one data set can be trusted, patterns are established by analyzing multiple sets of actions. This method is then further refined by comparing an individual's behavior with the behavior of his closest acquaintances (i.e. friends and family). An individual is a combination of genetics and environment, and to see the way the people that made up that environment act moves one step closer to accurately predicting the actions of the individual. It is therefore through the information about others that the entire prediction structure is built, and then further perfected based on an the personal patterns of the individual as well as those of his closest relations.


The conundrum of the individuality ideal is the always present rebuttal to the entire argument above: "So what? I am not important enough for anyone to care about me." Yet this is precisely the reason why we need to reconsider our "individuality." Maybe you are not important enough for anyone to care about any of these things for you specifically. Nevertheless, because you are part of the society that everyone lives in, information about you is used to invade the privacy of others. In other words, in order for any of our privacy to be protected, all of our privacy must be protected.

-- MattDavisRatner - 05 Mar 2009

I have been having a difficult time making this as cohesive as I had hoped. The idea that social knowledge is far more accurate than we believe because of our "uniqueness" bias has so many interrelated factors that this approach may not have been the most effective. A focus on the "everyone must have privacy for anyone to have privacy" may be a more efficient seed to start this discussion.

-- MattDavisRatner - 11 Mar 2009

I agree with your above comment. The second section in particular seems out of place - the first and the third go together well, but I feel like by the end it hasn't really addressed the thesis you expressed in the introduction. If you want to keep your uniqueness thesis, you may want to look into psych research, as there is probably extant work on the topic (though you may not want to use "uniqueness bias", as this term has already been coined in another context:

-- TheodoreSmith - 15 Mar 2009

  • Here's a piece suspended at the verge of editing. Ted made a suggestion, which was helpful, and confirmed your own awareness of the difficulty. But there it stopped. Being edited would help you understand what to do next: the editor would suggest a reorganization, and you'd say "Ah, yes, that would be better." But what you really need is not the edit but the clue to how to do the edit. I'm not sure I have that. But here's the basic problem: you split one idea into three components and discussed them separately. That didn't work. Now you should try a structure that doesn't break the idea into pieces, but rather exhibits directly connected facets. Individualism and privacy seem to be related in a certain direct and predictable way. But actually, the cultural bias towards the individual free of his context that creates the demand for privacy in the sense of autonomy reduces the individual's ability to perceive how his autonomy is actually undercut by failures of secrecy and anonymity.

Ted, Thank you for the comments. Looking back on this paper, I was too involved with desire to talk about the Obama phone issue to accept that it really did not fit in with the rest of this paper. I tried to make this rendition more focused by bringing it back to one underlying flaw (that of unpredictability) and from there branching out into why the social nature of individuals matters. I apologize for the delay in responding to your insight. It was very helpful in making me realize there were too many interwoven aspects at the start, and that in order to improve I needed to simplify the model of explanation.

-- MattDavisRatner - 12 May 2009



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r7 - 05 Jan 2010 - 22:30:52 - IanSullivan
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