On Privacy

Olivia Rowe
May 9, 2020 · 10 min read

By Olivia Gardiner and Joshua Sommer

The effects of COVID-19 have been and will continue to be world-shifting. The medical community and our markets have been devastated; it’s anyone’s guess when we will recover. Mental health seems it will suffer similarly. It is worth pondering, then, how society handles such a crisis and what lasting changes will occur, for good and ill. One aspect of social life that has become increasingly visible is privacy rights. What follows is an explanation of what privacy is, why it matters, and how it may be changing in the light of a pandemic.

What is Privacy?

Let’s first provide context as to what privacy even is. There has long been a debate on the proper balance between an individual’s right to privacy and a need for security. On the one hand, privacy in Western thought is considered a fundamental human right. It is the belief that one can do as they please in the privacy of their home, and now in one’s personal devices, without fear of surveillance. Any authority that wishes to intrude on that privacy bears the burden of proof on why they should be allowed to do so. On the other hand, we have security, which provides safety against domestic and foreign threats; law enforcement and armed forces respectively, and intelligence agencies to preemptively protect citizens against attacks before they occur. A democratic state faces the challenge of providing security while respecting privacy to the extent that it can. Obviously, for the sake of security, sometimes privacy must be intruded upon when necessary. Security organizations, like any other, perform very poorly without access to information.

Digital privacy is even more abstract. Say you went out to your mailbox and placed a private letter inside it. Late in the night a person walks up to your mailbox and steals the letter, opens and reads it, and posts its content on Facebook. This letter contained a number of complaints about relatives or a friend or two and before long they have taken to respond to this post, hurt and angry over its contents. I imagine you would be mortified as I would be. One could argue, perhaps you shouldn’t have written those awful things about the people in your life. Fair enough, but are you really willing to extend that to its logical conclusion? To avoid being the hypocrite, are you willing to open up your entire private life to inspection by your peers or even the state? Can you claim that you yourself have never done something similar, whether in the form of a letter or text message? Even if you are the saint we’ve all been waiting for, are you willing to place this demand on everyone? I imagine not.

And here is where it gets painful: you have already unwittingly done that. If you are unfamiliar with the concepts defining digital privacy, perhaps you believe that when you send an email it is only you and the recipient who read it. Unless you are privacy-savvy and using an end-to-end encrypted email service, I’m afraid you are not. (Harvard Gazette) Imagine every time you put a private letter in your mailbox a group of people would ravage your mailbox late at night to read its contents. At some point, to maintain sanity, you’d probably stop writing letters altogether.

Perhaps you begin devising tricks to get your letters to their intended audience without the middle-man thieves. You place empty envelopes in the mailbox as a feint or install a large stone wall around your mailbox. There is a digital equivalent to these measures. There are many privacy-oriented services emerging that utilize various technologies that ensure that no one, not even the provider, can read your emails or text messages, cannot snoop at the people in your address book or the products you buy.

It’s a path worth treading though it is one full of craggy hills and necessary sacrifices. It isn’t just email that is being snooped on. It is all forms of digital communication and nearly everything done on a computer or network. In many cases, the very hardware that runs your computer has embedded tracking software.

Why Privacy is Important

Let’s look at an example of privacy in action. Say you and your partner wish to have sex. You’ve both decided that it would be against your better judgment to perform this act in public; it’s illegal anyway and frowned upon by your neighbors. You retreat to the bedroom wherein you close the blinds before getting down to it. You close the blinds. Why? Is sex such a shameful act that no one should perform it in the eyes of others? Surely that isn’t the case, otherwise pornography would not be a multibillion-dollar industry. Perhaps you can’t come up with a rational reason for why you wish to close your blinds. And really, that’s the point. You don’t need to provide a reason as to why you’d like to close the blinds in your own home. There is not a single agency or actor that has the authority to get a warrant or some other legal device that allows them to force your blinds open, or even worse, allows them to sit in the corner while you fornicate with your partner. We are all fortunate that such weirdos are not allowed to exist in this way. This is one simple example of a right you enjoy every day of your life and which you probably almost never think about unless you’re a lawyer or activist.

Privacy on a Spectrum


Actors Intentionally Complexify Privacy

Lawyers, politicians, philosophers, programmers, and other professionals find privacy an important topic of debate as it concerns the freedom and rights of citizens. Programmers worry over how their products will be used and of digital rights, while politicians try to determine what the appropriate balance is between security, convenience, and privacy. Corporations and states, however, intentionally make privacy an even more complex issue and for important reasons.

Corporations and Surveillance Capitalism

In Capitalist societies, profit is God, and it is my hope that you, reader, will agree that corporate wrong-doing is beyond dispute. Corporations and companies provide useful services that many of us enjoy or even find essential. Consequently, many of us either unwittingly give up our information for the privilege or use them begrudgingly, knowing that these companies care very little for user privacy.

Facebook is the most prominent example, with a list of scandals that would make the most unsavory business types blush. (CNN) With many of the services we enjoy being located in the digital marketplace, we have entered into a new age of surveillance capitalism. This nefarious form of capitalism is perhaps easier understood if compared to war profiteering. When a conflict arises between two armed forces, have no doubt that an entrepreneur or company will swoop in to sell one or both forces weapons. In the same vein, if a company can turn a profit by selling its customer’s personal data, it will. It is much easier to sell one’s data when companies produce enough propaganda to change how privacy is viewed in the broader public and when you bury how user data is used under jargony long-winded terms of service.

We find ourselves at another philosophical teeter-totter. What is the appropriate balance between the convenience of the services we use and the security standards with which our data is handled? Plenty of companies would have you believe that the tracking, collection, and sale of personal data is used to improve the services they provide. This is, again, not true. Differential privacy is a technique for collecting data while not identifying that data with an identifiable. I’ll provide an example for clarity: say you use a music streaming service and it begins recommending music it thinks you may like. This feature uses machine learning to learn what users like listening to; maybe you prefer upbeat electronic tracks with a healthy dose of synths and songs falling into a certain band of BPM. This feature only needs your song-listens to determine recommendations. It doesn’t need your name, credit card information, or address. This is where differential privacy comes in. Whereas services like Spotify collect all of this information when you use the service, an ethical service would encrypt or simply not track personal user data when learning what the user likes. It may only look at listening patterns form recommendations off of them or use encryption methods that bar hackers, other users, and employees from looking at identifiable information.

The Blending of Public and Private Life

The line between public and private life has become increasingly blurred. Social media shoves us into a state of being uncontroversial and censored. The modus operandi of social media users is to advertise with abandon the perfectly curated parts of their lives. In this public arena, people hide their true thoughts and intentions for fear of the social punishment that inevitably follows. We are encouraged to showcase inauthentic versions of ourselves. Being open and honest about one’s struggles and flaws hits too close to home and thus rarely occurs on social media platforms. This is just a glimpse into what it would feel like to be under social surveillance. Today, we at least have the choice to opt-out of social media. In a world without privacy, true integrity becomes an act of futility; under surveillance, you cannot be sure that someone commits an action out of virtue or fear of retribution. In such a world, people only have integrity because their every waking moment is under the microscope of Big Brother. Simply put, we are not our true selves when we are being watched.

Privacy is essential because intimacy would be impossible without it. If this holds true at all, then there must be a clear separation between the public and private spheres in society. Aristotle argues that in private life, we can cultivate virtues that we cannot in public. Raising a family gives adults the opportunity to practice temperance and children the opportunity to develop moral virtues. The lack of privacy has disrupted our development of moral virtues and has created a space that does not allow for error. Privacy is a space to experience trust, respect, love, and friendship (DeCrew,3.3 ). Our ability to manage and develop meaningful interpersonal relationships has been heavily influenced by the overwhelming presence of the public sphere. Judith A. Swanson’s The Public and the Private in Aristotle’s Political Philosophy articulates Aristotle’s ideas on the necessity of nurturing one’s privacy.

“Indeed, Aristotle’s fundamental observation that a whole cannot be sound unless its parts are, supports the claim that the economy serves the whole by way of serving individuals.”(Swansen, 174)

By aiding the right to privacy for an individual, the entire society benefits. With sound privacy rights individuals are given the freedom to develop and make errors without fear of public judgment. Without, our morals are heavily influenced by the eyes of the public, disrupting our illustrations of moral virtue. Many arguments in support of less privacy suggest that having access to all personal data protects us from people exhibiting terrorist behavior. While this might be true, it is completely unethical and unhealthy to not have control over your personal data. Privacy is not a dark shadow that is only craved by criminals, we all need it and we all benefit from it.


Fighting for one’s right to privacy in the middle of a global pandemic may seem unusual. Many people are grappling with where we should draw the line between wanting the best for public health and wanting the right to privacy. Should our privacy be invaded for the sake of pandemic control? This is a similar situation the United States experienced during the events of September 11th, 2001. The Patriot Act was enacted to ensure public safety against terrorist attacks, at the cost of our privacy. Another wave of privacy invasion has already been employed in the United States to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. An article by Business Law Today suggests that the little control over our privacy protection might soon be stripped away.

The U.S. is not immune to acceleration of government surveillance to fight the novel coronavirus. According to the Wall Street Journal, data mining company Palantir is working with the Centers for Disease Control to model the viral spread, and, “Other companies that scrape public social-media data have contracts in place with the agency and the National Institutes of Health.” The same article points out, “Crimson Hexagon, now part of Brandwatch, has a $30,000 contract with the CDC that was initiated last fall, according to government records. Crimson provides companies and governments with ‘social listening’ tools, meaning it scrapes public Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter posts in part to gauge sentiment.” Social media databases can be used to look for symptoms people discuss like shortness of breath, fever, or cough (Claypoole).

The new territory of a pandemic makes it difficult for people to decipher the ethics behind invading privacy for the sake of the greater good. The Patriot Act was initially advertised as a short-term plan to alleviate fear in the United States. The Patriot Act, however, is still in place twenty years later. Is the pandemic another convenient opportunity to further data mining and privacy invasion? One might choose not to take a stance on this issue due to the abundance of unknowns amid this crisis. However, we might use our reasoning from the realization of the damage the Patriot Act caused and pay attention to the current legislation being put into action. While it might be appropriate during a global crisis to track databases and identify people experiencing symptoms of coronavirus, it is not appropriate to prolong this surveillance for a second longer than absolutely necessary. A life with privacy is one in which we can rest easy without judgment and pursue our full flourishing. A life with privacy is honoring that part of us that no one else should have access to.

Works Cited

Claypoole, Theodore. “COVID-19 and Data Privacy: Health vs. Privacy”. Business Law Today. March 26th, 2020. https://businesslawtoday.org/2020/03/covid-19-data-privacy-health-vs-privacy/

DeCew, Judith, “Privacy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/privacy/

Mineo, Liz. “On Internet Privacy, Be Very Afraid.” Harvard Gazette, 24 Aug. 2017, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/08/when-it-comes-to-internet-privacy-be-very-afraid-analyst-suggests/.

Swanson, Judith A. The Public and the Private in Aristotle’s Political Philosophy. Cornell University Press, 1992. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctvn1t9wp. Accessed 2 May 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctvn1t9wp.9?refreqid=excelsior%3Adb3ecdb873ca163a2c61624c5be0eb2e&seq=15#metadata_info_tab_contents

Valinsky, Jordan, et al. “Facebook’s Bottomless Pit of Scandals.” CNN, Cable News Network, www.cnn.com/interactive/2018/12/business/facebooks-year-of-scandal/index.html.

Olivia Gardiner

Student of History