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Sensitivity and Personal Information

posted by:David Matheson // 05:01 PM // May 30, 2005 // Core Concepts: language and labels

The sensitivity of personal information

Is personal information necessarily sensitive? That is, from the fact that a given bit of information about an individual is personal does it follow that the information is sensitive?

The question is relevant to privacy concerns, since informational privacy is usually understood in terms of personal information: one can have privacy with respect to personal information about oneself, but never with respect to non-personal information. (That's why, for example, it makes sense to talk about my privacy with respect to information about my sexual or drinking habits, whereas it doesn't make sense to talk about my privacy with respect to information about the physical properties of quarks. The latter is not personal information about me.) And the general consensus in the privacy literature is that, yes, personal information is indeed necessarily sensitive. I think that's a mistake, however, so let me explain why.

There are two main ways in which one might try to maintain that personal information is necessarily sensitive. First, one might claim that (1) in order for information about an individual to be personal, that individual herself must not want the information widely known. Second, one might claim that (2) in order for information about an individual to be personal, the information must be of such a sort that most members of the individual's society would not want information of that sort widely known about themselves, regardless of whether that individual herself wants it. (This second account comes originally from William A. Parent, and various others in the privacy literature have followed his lead here.)

The trouble is that neither of these accounts escapes refutation by clear counterexample. Consider the following counterexample to (1). Jack is a guy who simply doesn't care at all who knows what about him. As far as he's concerned, every fact about him from the details of his fantasy life to how often he clips his toenails is open season to anyone who cares to ask. (The existence of people like Jack is not so bizarre as one might think, given the increasing popularity of highly personal blogs on the Web.) What should we say of Jack? According to (1), there is no such thing as personal information about him, since he's happy to have anyone at all know anything at all about him. But that's clearly wrong. There mere fact that Jack doesn't care who knows what about him -- that he's not sensitive about any of his information -- doesn't mean that none of his information is personal. The right thing to say is rather that he simply couldn't care less about whether anyone knows his personal information.

Consider now the following counterexample to (2). Suppose there is a society in which, as it happens, the majority of individuals don't care whether anyone else knows facts about the intimacies of their (say) sexual lives. Due to the propaganda and brainwashing of state officials, say, almost every individual in this society has become conditioned not to care about this sort of exposure. Does it follow that for any individual in such a society, details about the intimacies of her sexual life fail are non-personal? Clearly not, yet that is precisely what (2) implies. The mere fact that most people in this society don't care who knows what about their sexual lives doesn't mean that information about their sexual lives is not personal. Contrary to (2), the natural thing to say is that, sadly, most people in this society have been conditioned not to care about whether personal information -- about their sexual lives -- is widely known.

So, both (1) and (2) turn out to be false. Granted, there may be some other way of trying to establish the supposedly inherent sensitivity of personal information, but for my part I can't see how it would go. I think we have to recognize that personal information, whatever it turns out to be, is not necessarily (even if typically) sensitive.

The relativity of privacy

Here's one reason why this is important. If personal information is not necessarily sensitive, then one common argument for the relativity of privacy (which relies on the opposite claim) goes by the wayside. The argument goes like this:

Premise 1. Privacy entails personal information.
Premise 2. Personal information entails sensitive information.
Conclusion 1. Therefore, privacy entails sensitive information.
Premise 3. Sensitive information is relative to individuals or societies.
Conclusion 2. Therefore, privacy is relative to individuals or societies.

Premise 1 here is just another way of putting the point raised in the second paragraph above. Premise 2 captures the idea that personal information is necessarily sensitive. Premise 3 says, in effect, that whether a bit of information about an individual is sensitive depends either on (a) whether that individual wants the information widely known or on (b) whether most members of that individual's society want information of that sort widely known about themselves; and (a) and (b) vary from person to person, and society to society, respectively.) And the final step of the reasoning, Conclusion 2, says that whether an individual has privacy with respect to information about her depends either on either (a) or (b). Privacy is relative, in other words, in the sense that whatever privacy you have right now could be increased or diminished simply by either changing your mind about whether you want the relevant information widely known, or by people in your society changing their mind in a similar way -- even if nothing else changes.

One we see that personal information is not necessarily sensitive, however, we see that Premise 2 of this line of reasoning won't do. So, to the extent that we do think privacy is relative in the way that Conclusion 2 suggests, we'll need some other argument. This one fails.

For the record, I don't think privacy is relative in the way that Conclusion 2 suggests: I think you've got to do more to increase or diminish my privacy than merely bring about those changes of mind. I do think privacy is relative in another way, but that's a story for another time.

Comments

David,

I am a bit confused with what you are concluding here. Sensitivity is a sufficient but not necessary consequence of privacy loss? I can't help but want to say 'and?'...
It seems that your last comment about relativity, the one that pertains to another time, is something that I am very interested in knowing.

Posted by: Krystal Kreye at June 4, 2005 01:13 AM

Hi Krystal. I do argue that sensitivity is not a necessary condition on privacy loss, in the sense that an individual can (have and hence) lose privacy with respect to personal information about her even though that information is not sensitive information about her. So, in my view, even if an individual could care less about whether certain information is widely known about her, she can still (have and hence) lose privacy with respect to that information. (I don't argue, nor do I believe, that sensitivity is a sufficient condition for privacy loss.)

There are many reasons why one might find this view interesting. It gives us some insight into the nature of privacy, for example; it runs against an entrenched view in the privacy literature, and undermines a standard argument for the relativity of privacy to individual or social sensitivities; it even makes it easier to understand how someone can have more privacy than they want or than is generally desirable (try making sense of that when sensitivity is built right into the very notion of privacy).

I talk about the sense in which I think (informational) privacy is relative at the beginning of my "Privacy, Knowledge and Knowableness" paper (posted in the Works in Progress Section of the Website). The basic idea is pretty straightforward. An individual's privacy is always relative to another individual and to a personal fact (bit of personal information) about her in the sense that privacy is a three place relation that holds between these three things. Thus, for example, I may have privacy relative to you and to a fact about the frequency of my beer consumption. But that doesn't mean that I have privacy relative to my drinking buddies and that fact. Nor does my having no privacy relative to my drinking buddies and that fact mean that I have no privacy relative to them and facts about (say) my financial records.

The relativity of privacy in this sense is not often explicitly mentioned in the privacy literature, but it turn out to be fairly important for a clear understanding of what competing accounts of privacy amount to.

Posted by: David Matheson at June 6, 2005 05:50 AM

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