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People aren’t conflicted about privacy – they just appear that way

By Simon Davies

People often ask me to explain why privacy seems such a incongruous concept. Why is it that people who proclaim to love privacy will sometimes cheerfully give it away? Why do some people who oppose ID cards because they are instruments of government intrusion, contemporaneously support national security powers that are an embodiment of government intrusion?

If the child is misled about the facts, he will almost inevitably become extremely upset because trust is damaged.

I’ll make an attempt to explain – and please forgive me if this starts off a little simplistically. It’s a surprisingly complex question and I want to tread cautiously.

The family is an ideal microcosm to begin exploring the dynamics.

Imagine the family unit as a miniature nation state. The parents have a protective role, and the children – while dependant – assert certain rights and freedoms. The equation between the two is delicate. In most cases, where successful, it triumphs through negotiation. To nurture trust the parent must agree some areas that are “off limits” and the child must have the right to argue for those limits.

And yet the child will happily agree to renegotiate those limits in times of crisis or aberration. A child who insists that the parent should not inspect his room may shift opinion when there is the threat of a rat or a spider. However the child will exercise judgment about whether the parent is exploiting the exemption. For example a room inspection during the day might be completely unacceptable, as would an inspection where there are no grounds for concern. And if the child is misled about the facts, he will almost inevitably become extremely upset because trust is damaged.

What bonds people in their support of privacy is a distaste for hypocrisy, unfairness, secrecy or deception.

It’s equally true in the adult world that some people may agree to disclosure of medical records in times of crisis, or agree to increased police surveillance when there is a threat of terrorist attack. However if the medical information is taken without consent or police powers are initiated without consultation, the reaction may be completely the reverse.

That doesn’t mean privacy is any less important to people – as much as the privacy invaders might like to portray it that way. It just means people exercise their instinct and judgment about the many conflicting issues they need to consider from day to day. They use this judgment in highly specific ways, but are offended if liberties are taken beyond that context. That is the key point.

Interestingly, there is a uniting factor. What bonds people in their support of privacy is a distaste for hypocrisy, unfairness, secrecy or deception. No matter how much a person may support a technology of intrusion, those four aspects are a lightning rod for opposition. This tells us a huge amount about the nature of privacy.

If claims made by authorities are misleading, if politicians exempt themselves from the level of invasion imposed on the public or if surveillance is conducted covertly or without due process, people will almost certainly rise up in opposition.

If claims made by authorities are misleading, if politicians exempt themselves from the level of invasion imposed on the public or if surveillance is conducted covertly or without due process, people will almost certainly rise up in opposition.

People will almost universally equate privacy with such keywords as “intrusion” and “solitude” and the majority consistently express grave concern over invasion of privacy, but the ubiquity ends there. Although the issue has galvanised public anxiety more than at almost any time in history it’s equally true that the sheer scale of the field has fragmented public perception. This dynamic is heightened by claims of benefits to security. But people are united in their hatred of the four elements above. In short this means that people are prepared to conditionally trade some of their privacy as long as there is no hypocrisy, unfairness, secrecy or deception.

This is a very encouraging dynamic. It indicates that people generally want an evidence based argument to justify privacy invasion.

Why am I ruminating on such things? Well, while I was in Washington DC last week I appeared on the Diane Rehm show on National Public Radio along with renowned hacker Kevin Mitnick and Washington Post technology correspondent Cecilia Kang. While we were discussing these aspects I mentioned that the public displayed an incongruity, and I described this as a sort of “Cognitive Dyspraxia” in which the conscious mind wanted to take one course of action but instinctively reacted in an entirely different way.

I was wrong. People generally don’t react to privacy issues so randomly. On reflection I conclude that they increasingly base their reaction on the tests of fairness and consistency. The more I consider this matter, the more I come around to the belief that there isn’t an incongruity in the public mind – there’s merely deception and incongruity in the mindset of those responsible for promoting surveillance.