Why Privacy Is the Most Important Concept of Our Time

In case you are coming from Hacker News and are confused about some comments, be aware that I updated the essay to deal with some criticism.

The title is not hyperbole. I do think that privacy is the most important concept of our time. Let me tell you why:

  • internet is not a virtual world anymore, it is a dimension that permeates our lives; we work, socialize and get informed through the internet
  • our society is more diverse; we have some things in common with our neighbors and some with separate communities
  • privacy is integral to separate the different parts of our lives; once the separation could be just physical and accidental (i.e., you live here and work there), now it must be built intentionally because there are no natural barriers in information spreading

In short, internet has made sharing information easier and complexity has made information more dangerous. We need to evolve our understanding of rules and norms to deal with this new situation.

I have always believed in the importance of privacy, but I felt that common definitions (e.g., the right to be left alone) were lacking. In fact, I think that the whole conceptualization of privacy as simply a right of an individual and regarding private information as partial and limiting.

Think about this: the government can send policemen to surveil you and everybody they deem interesting. However, it can do this only for few people. This limitation is due to physical constraints, not legal ones. There is a limited number of policemen and you would notice if there was a police car in front of each house of the neighborhood. This is not true for internet communications: the government can spy everyone at once and you would never notice. As many whistleblowers have revealed, this is what the NSA has actually done.

So, the changes in society affect privacy directly but may also affect all our rights indirectly. Privacy is the fundamental principle that must respond to these changes.

You might say that then, maybe, I am not really thinking about privacy, but rather something else. That might be true, so let’s not talk about privacy, instead let’s talk about Ur-Privacy, the principles of any possible concept of privacy. Take this essay as the opinion of a random guy that cares about the issue.

What is Ur-Privacy

A few principles for privacy

Privacy is not just something we need to separate our private live from our public live. It is necessary to separate our private live, the communities we belong to and the public sphere from each other.

Privacy is about boundaries. It is not about hiding something but allowing to create a space with rules decided by its members. I like to compare it to borders. Some people say that borders are a restriction, something that limit freedom of movement and we do not need in the contemporary world. As if they were arbitrary obstacles put there by petty people. It almost makes sense if you do not think about them, after all you are actually stopped at a border.

However, that is not true, that is not why they exist. Borders delimit the area that a certain state control, an area where a specific set of rules and laws applies. There was a time before borders, in fact most of human history did not have clear borders. It was not a time of freedom, but anarchy, where bands of barbarians could roam into your home and pillage everything.

In this context is also important to remember that before the Peace of Westphalia modern European states were plagued by continual wars. The short version is that this was due to the combination of two facts:

  • modernity begets differences, different kings choose different religions1 and separated societies
  • however, the legitimacy of kings was still based on shared medieval ideals, like the concept of divine rule

In short, the issue was not that leaders wanted to make war all the time, they needed to do so because the legitimacy of their power depended, at least on some level, to what the rest of the European world was doing. If you claim to be a divine king there better be agreement on what the divine is, otherwise a guy that picks a different religion can also pick a different king. And, according to some, he could be a legitimate king. To change the situation this peace treaty established the principle that the internal affairs of a state are the exclusive interest of said state.

The connection with privacy is this: without clear rules on what is private and what is public, nobody knows which stuff belongs to whom. This means chaos and often that all belong to the strongest. Somebody might say that what you do in private, it is not private at all but political. It concerns the society at large. Therefore, it must be regulated according to their rules.

Privacy does not imply hiding the truth. Meaning depends on context, therefore everything should be considered within its context.

Privacy is about control. Without privacy we cannot decide for ourselves how to live our lives. If there is no privacy, all become public. Whoever has more power and an interest can affect your life according to their own rules. Then, I have to care about what other people think, otherwise they will control how I can behave. As before the peace of Westphalia, the issue is not that other people are bad, they have to do it. When everything is subject to public scrutiny, you either control the rules and judge others or you are judged and controlled by others.

Think about this way: we say a lot of things in our private lives that are not meant to be taken literally. In private we say something and then we add: you know what I mean. And that is actually true. We can do that because the people we talk to in private know us; they understand the context in which our words must be understood. And even more importantly: they care about us; they do not want to intentionally misunderstand us.

When I was a child I would sometimes say and think that I wanted to kill my brother. I did not mean it literally and everybody knew it. If I said the same thing now, in public, to somebody that does not know me, the phrase would be different. It would be a threat.

Why is that? They are the exact same words. You know why, of course. I am different and the context is different. The real meaning of something, whether an action or a word, is not absolute, in most cases it is relative. When we speak in public, we share a different context, therefore our words have a different meaning.

So even if I say something as a hyperbole, or something that can be construed as an implicit threat (e.g., they must be stopped at all costs!), they might protest. You might say that they are overreacting, that it was just a joke, but how can they be sure of it? They do not know me. It is true that acts of violence are prepared by violent words. Even if you are unsure if something is really violent, you have to take a stand. You have to make clear that any attack against you is not permissible. Otherwise, somebody, maybe a crazy guy, might think that it is permissible and the right course of action. Somebody might feel legitimated to take your land and kingdom.

Privacy is not just needed to protect us from the government or exceptional situations. It is about understanding the rules that applies to every aspect of our life so that they can be fair for everybody.

Privacy is about everyday life. The issue is not simply that something we say can be considered a threat. When you are communicating with someone you need to be able to understand them. Communication requires a shared understanding at some level.

The easiest example to understand this are work discussions. When we talk with people that work in our field, we can communicate more easily the impact of a choice. This goes beyond the ability to use technical terminology: we know which are the main things to care about. The same discussion with our bosses would be different. Even making them understand the basic strengths and weaknesses is more challenging.

Now imagine being forced to communicate everything you do in the most general terms, to people that do not care about you, because everybody can see you. So, they can use any piece of information for their own needs. This could mean a policeman investigating you. It could also mean a company making you pay more for a pair sneakers, because they know how much disposable income you have and that you really love sneakers.

We need privacy to be aware of what is happening to us. It is too much to demand we know how other people interpret what we say. However, it is not excessive to ask that we can control what is shared about us.

Privacy Affects Everything

Defending privacy would require all-around changes

Privacy is the most important concept of our time, because it influences everything else. Without privacy we do not know what rules applies. Our lives will be judged according to the rules of somebody else in ways we cannot even imagine.

We cannot discuss all of the possible implications of privacy on other rights, so let’s see just the example of freedom of speech. Of course, sometimes you can also be judged for who you are: your religion or lack thereof, political opinion or sexual orientation.

Give me six lines written by the most honest man, and there I will find something to hang him.

Cardinal Richelieu

People lost jobs and had their lives ruined, because the mob judged something they said in private in a different way from what they expected. And they paid a price. You might say: that was fair. We might judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by their actions, which are real and objective.

XKCD – Free Speech

I, for once, disagree with XKCD and this view. There are a couple of different issues here:

  • how we should react to speech we disagree with
  • what was meant to be shared among friends was taken out of context and made public

This complicates the whole matter. At a first glance the first issue should not matter here, because we are talking about privacy. However, this is a bit more complicated. Violations of privacy can affect other rights and freedom. Freedom of speech is a right regarding the public sphere. You have always been able to say everything in private, for the simple fact that people cannot control that.

This allowed people to control what they said and did in public, while still having private opinions or lifestyles. This is not dishonesty. There are simply different parts of our lives. This separation is crucial to enjoy each of them at its fullest. If the private sphere becomes public, then either we get absolute freedom of speech (a sort of speech anarchy, if you will) or we lose freedom of speech.

Okay, then we demand to not violate privacy even in the case of bad speech. If you said something bad in private, then I cannot demand your boss to fire you. I cannot do that even by maintaining privacy: trust me on this, they said something really bad, you should fire them.

This is crucial, but we have to understand that simply enforcing privacy in the traditional way is not enough anymore. To protect privacy we need to re-interpret some rights we have. For instance, traditionally there have been exceptions to privacy for public interest. If you heard a public person saying something controversial in private you could go public about. The issue is that few people (i.e., the press) had that power. Now we all have it. So, to defend privacy we need to accept shared norms of behavior. We cannot expect consequences outside the context that caused them. And this cannot just be a law, but a social norm, too.

This is hard to do, because people have different idea of public interest. It is not true that we judge others by their actions. We judge others by our intentions. So, we must be strict about the norm that the answer to some speech should be only some other form of speech. In other words, if somebody offended you with some method, you should respond with the same method. If somebody said something bad, you cannot shove them. Actions by a mob in order to punish an alleged transgressor, punish a convicted transgressor, or intimidate them is not an answer to a bad argument, it is a lynching.

There is a difference between killing somebody and just ruining their lives. However, it is still bad. It is still lynching, something we do to one to control one hundred. Making somebody lose their livelihood because of something they said in private it is not fair, because they said it in a different context. They were not prepared to be judged by their worst enemies. And they should not have.

The philosopher Jeremy Bentham described the perfect prison as the Panopticon. A prison where in every cell there was a one-way mirror. This way the guards could watch the inmates without being seen. Therefore the inmates would have to behave as if they were always watched. That kind of sounds like the world right now. And I am ready to lose the power to punish bad people in order to protect me from people that think I am a bad guy.

What Should We Do?

A modest proposal

So what has to be done to defend privacy? There should be clear boundaries about private, social and public spaces:

  • a private space regards only you or your family
  • a social space is something involving a community, either a virtual one like a forum or a real one like a city
  • a public space is for all actors of society

By clear boundaries I mean that we should create rules, norms and even icons to define these spaces. For instance, we could demand that if you are about to post something that is going to be seen by the whole world, then a social network should show you a globe in the input box, maybe even color-code it in red.

We should make laws to defend the differences between such spaces. For example, no ad-tracking in private spaces. No sharing of private content with third-parties2. Even legal authorities should not be able to just ask for anything private of John Smith, please. The authorities should be able only to get access to something that is directly linked to the matter at hand.

Everything that was shared in a social space should not be taken out of it. Sharing of such content should be blocked and moral norms should require that we chastise people that try to publicize that. Yes, even if you find something compromising about your enemy, you should not bring it in the the public space. It belongs to somebody else. Authorities might have access to all social content, with a valid reason.

Of course these are just examples. The gist of it is that we should go in such details, because ideals of freedom, justice and privacy are made real by statutes, laws and social norms. Ideals must have bodies to affect the real world: we should find a way not just to talk about privacy, but to embody it in different forms.

What we know today as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc. were defined piece by piece. We should do the same for privacy, for the world that exists right now.

For example, you might think that I was unfair to XKCD before. Companies have the right to block people on their platform so that they can sell ads to other companies without embarrassment. If people do not like that, they should make their own Facebook. The problem is that they cannot do that. You can make another newspaper, and to defend freedom of the press, the government cannot stop you.

However, you cannot make another Facebook. You cannot find 2 other billion people to put in your social network. Competition is impossible. Therefore either the government regulates Facebook to allow all content or they force Facebook identities to behave like telephone numbers: if you go somewhere else you can bring them with you and operate with Facebook ones.

I repeat, these are just practical examples to make the concept clearer. The objective of this essay is not to persuade you about this or that technical measure, but that a new, deeper understanding of privacy is needed.


Privacy and its consequences

Privacy is the principle of separation of concerns, different spaces should not interfere with each other. It is like the principle of separation of powers in government.

Privacy is necessary to understand how our information is used and having a chance to make sure it is used fairly. Without it the whole of society can enter any space and judge it in ways that are unpredictable. Without privacy we cannot understand the consequences of our choices.

Contemporary society is more diverse, freer; and exactly because of that is more complicated. We cannot expect the rest of society to understand everything else. We must ensure that there is separation between different parts, so that people can explore their own interests without interference. This does not mean renouncing to public discourse, but making sure that is not an obstacle to the rest. When people will engage with the whole society, everybody will consider that context matters, we are different but equal.

Consider this: we are the most educated civilizations in the history of mankind and yet public discourse is the stupidest it has ever been.

Imagine that you disagree with your own group, what do you think is the most probable message about you:

  • you are a traitor
  • you fully support the cause, however you disagree with this particular course of action because X

This happens because everything we said is taken out of context, therefore:

  • only the simplest ideas can travel among the public
  • the group must costantly protect itself from outsiders

If we create rules and norms that make harder to do that, we will have greater quality both in public and social discourse.

Defending privacy is going to be a long struggle: we will need to change many aspects of our societies. It will be complicated and challenging, but we are going to live in a better world.

Think about the fact that at a first glance we are both more and less free compared to people in medieval times. Let’s focus on one example: the ability to move great distances. In medieval times you could just hop on a horse and start moving3. Nowadays a car must be produced according to an infinite amount of rules and you also need a specific license to drive one. And yet, in practical terms, our ability to move is much higher compared to that of a medieval person. We can do it quicker and for longer distances. So, we are in some ways both more and less constrained in our movement.

This is not an accident, the complexity is not arbitrary: we need to ensure that cars are a viable mean of transportation. Without rules, cars would broke too frequently, drivers will be involved in too many incidents and any road might fall apart when you drive on it.

The greater complexity of rules concerning transportation has actually increased our ability to move. It seems a paradox but it is true.

I think that with the right understanding of privacy we can be more safe, have a greater autonomy in our choices and more freedom.


1. The king decided the religion for the state, not the people: the principle was Cuius regio, eius religio. The idea of personal freedom of religion came later.

2 Companies could still share content for technical reasons, such as hosting it. They would lose the cede the rights to third parties and to share it willy-nilly for commercial reasons.

3. I am ignoring legal and monetary issues that made this difficult for common people to actually do that

In-depth Articles

Get in-depth guides, articles and updates in your inbox

14 thoughts on “Why Privacy Is the Most Important Concept of Our Time”

  1. > I, for once, disagree with XKCD and this view.

    Indeed. “Mobs are a fact of life; adjust accordingly” is not great.

  2. What would one like yourself propose be done? Companies in this realm have no accountability. From ISPs to Applications and services, there is an invisible wall with puppet strings on one side.

    1. That is an important point. Part of the answer it is in the article, we must start by defining more clearly the concept of privacy. Because we cannot bring a revolution in the understanding of privacy without general agreement. Something practical that we can do is supporting and following the work of people that are doing something to define and defend privacy. In the United States they might be Ron Wyden (senator) or Bruce Schneier (security expert). In Italy it could be Stefano Quintarelli (technology expert and former deputy). If you know somebody like that in other countries, maybe you, and everybody else, can add them the comments. If we get a good list I can add them in the article.

  3. An interesting article with fresh, provocative thoughts made almost unintelligible by the worst use of grammar by smart person which I have ever read. Please! Get an editor or at least a proof reader. You obviously understand what you’re trying to say. We can’t and won’t be able to without better composition. Good luck.

    1. This comment is a roller coaster. Thanks for the valid criticism. The issue is that English is not my first language, so what I wrote seems intelligible to me. Currently I am just using software to check what I write, but next time I will try to find some people to review it.

  4. Great piece. I definitely agree with the necessity of having clearly defined and apparent spaces of privacy on social media platforms and this is actually something I am working on developing.

    It’s funny you mention that content posted to a public space should possibly be color-coded in red, because this is exactly what we do on our platform. We have three shareability control options: On/Off the platform (public) – labeled in red, On the platform (can be shared with others, but only others that are on the platform) – labeled in white, Unshareable (truly private, only the people you sent the message/post to can view that content) – labeled in green.

    The app is called Omnii and is currently in Beta on the Google Play Store if you are interested. Have a great day!

    1. I am glad that somebody is trying to improve the situation with their work.

      I like the idea of color coding, because I think these kinds of technical approaches can help foster a culture of privacy. One of the greatest criticism of Facebook is exactly that people do want to share less, but Facebook make it hard to understand what it happening to your content. Good luck with your app!

  5. I think that we should also demand laws requiring hardware manufacturers to implement physical switches for controlling the cameras and microphones of devices they produce. There are so many software exploits that nowadays no one could be sure whether her/his smartphone or laptop is not filming/listening to her/him when in private. It seems like an easy thing which can be done to improve privacy, but it seems like the governments all over the world are moving in the opposite direction as it was disclosed by Snowden.

    1. I agree that it would be a good idea. It would be great if we also found a way to implement the concept of safe, guaranteed switch-off in IoT devices, where an actual physical switch would be impractical (you cannot put one in a lighting bulb).

  6. “solutions” that depend on people all behaving “properly” never work.

    We need something with real teeth. Something like, every person needs to escrow some embarrassing fact about themselves, then, if they violate someone else’s privacy, the perpetrator’s private information gets released. Something that might be called, “Mutual Assured Blackmail”. Maybe Social Security number, or in the future, their private key (which unlocks all of their bank accounts and ownership rights) or their fingerprints or DNA.

    Now, how to make that escrowed embarrassment automatically released? How to prevent that system from being circumvented? That’s the hard part.

    1. I agree that we need to discuss details to make privacy work. However, I disagree that aggressive technical solutions are the key. If you think about it most crimes are unsolved, yet most people do not commit crimes. The chance of being caught is small for each single crime. What stops people from committing crimes is a mix of morality and social consequences. In fact, being criminal is a career as much as a lifestyle choice, rather than something people do on occasion. What you propose would scare off many people from partecipating at all.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *