2024 Hempel Lecture Series: Privacy and Its Violation

Lecture 1: A Search for Interests
Date
Mar 4, 2024, 4:30 pm6:00 pm

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Privacy and Its Violation

Pardon the hypotheticals, but suppose that I peep on you defecating.  Suppose I inform the other guests at a party that you are a former sex worker.  Suppose I read your diary to discover that you are the child of incest, or eavesdrop on your sharing the same secret with your friend.  If I do these things, at least without your consent, then it is natural to think that I wrong you, by violating a duty of privacy that I owe to you—or, for short, by violating your privacy.

Pardon me telling you things you already know, but technological changes mean there is vastly greater capacity for gathering information about you.  We carry monitoring devices—our smartphones—with us at almost all times, and we install further monitoring devices—smart thermostats, personal assistants—in our homes.  These changes also mean that there is vastly greater capacity for storing the information that is gathered. Much of this information about you is also more available, in the sense that it is easier to get access to the data once you know where it is.  You do not need to travel to the archive or respect their visiting hours, for example, if the archive has been digitized and made available online.  Information about you is also more searchable, in the sense that it is easier to find where the information is in the first place.  It is also easier to broadcast the information to others; disclosure by tweet is, at least if you have the right followers, much more effective than disclosure by leaflet.  Furthermore, the accumulation of massive data sets, even sets which don’t include your data, make possible new inferences or predictions about you: in short, the acquisition of yet more information about you.  In sum, others have vastly amplified powers to acquire and share information about you, and so they have vastly amplified powers to violate your privacy.

This series of lectures asks three questions.  What is the content of the duty—or rather duties—of privacy?  What justifies the duties of privacy?  Which digital practices, if any, violate the duties of privacy?

Lecture 1: A Search for Interests

This first lecture asks what interests of yours are set back by my violations of your privacy.  It canvasses answers that come readily to mind, as well as answers that have been put forward in the literature.  It is said that my violations of your privacy, among other things, expose you to mistreatment, lead to feelings of shame, compromise your autonomy, burden you with responsibilities, thwart your attempts at intimacy, and undermine your self-presentation.  However, the lecture argues, these interests, even taken together, are inadequate to justify the intuitive duties of privacy.  It is unclear how some of these interests are set back by violations of privacy.  It is unclear how some of these interests could justify a duty of privacy, given that they do not justify other duties.  And there are intuitive violations of privacy that don’t risk setting back any of these interests.