Choose Privacy Week 2012: Why We Should Care About Privacy

Doug Archer, chair of the Privacy Subcommittee of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee (ALA-IFC), closes our Choose Privacy Week observance with a thoughtful reflection on why individuals should care about privacy:

Why We Should Care About Privacy by J. Douglas Archer, Reference and Peace Studies Librarian, University of Notre Dame, and chair of the ALA-IFC Privacy Subcommittee

It never ceases to amaze me when people ask “Why do you care about privacy if you don’t have anything to hide?“ The implication, of course, is that you do have some deep, dark, dirty little (or big) secret and, if found out, you’d be ostracized by friends and neighbors if not sent to the big house for 10 to 20. Of course in the real world everyone has things to hide, things they would prefer that the world not know. Usually these are simply private normal matters of everyday life that would be merely embarrassing if viewed by the general public. In other cases, however, they are private concerns that once made public could have a devastating impact on the persons in question or their families – but are in no way criminal.

Let’s start with trivia. I can’t imagine many people (other than a few hard core exhibitionists) who would want a camera in their bath or bed rooms 24/7. And what about your pay stub, bank statement, or tax returns? A need for some space and things in your life that are yours and yours alone if only for part of the day seems to be a basic human trait. Its expression may be culturally determined but it’s there. You can have my bank statement (after I remove account numbers) but just stay out of my bedroom! In other words, some things are just no one’s business but yours and you have a perfect right to say so.

In addition, there seems to be a basic human need to have private space to explore, test and examine feelings and thoughts alone or with extremely close friends, family or colleagues without public examination. Such privacy encourages creative expression and free ranging analysis of sensitive questions – think politics and religion. It provides an opportunity to think the unthinkable. After all, the previously unthinkable, upon private reflection, may turn out to be rubbish or a positive, life changing insight. Once it becomes public, it may be seen as an affront to decent folks everywhere or the start the next cultural revolution. You never know! And, without the privacy to think and explore, you never will.

So far we’ve looked at purely personal and often embarrassing behavior and at the private entertainment of political or religious heresy. Now it’s time to address the truly life altering if not life threatening dangers of the loss of privacy.

A hypothetical: a young woman (teen ager) walks into her local small town or neighborhood library looking for information on teenage pregnancy. What could happen if word of her interest got out in her community? Maybe nothing. But maybe rumors fly. People are great at jumping to conclusions. Reputations can be ruined. Perhaps she is looking for information for a friend. Perhaps she has been sexually assaulted by a relative. Perhaps, perhaps.

Libraries protect library user privacy and defend the confidentiality of library records so that people may seek information for their needs without external pressure or adverse public reactions. Those users are then responsible for the use to which they put the information they discover. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. So, the next time someone asks you “Why do you care about privacy? Do you have anything to hide?“ just say “Sure and so do you.“ Then ask them to be sure and bring along their bank statement the next time they have that question. Or, better yet, ask them if they’d like you to spend the next 48 hours in their bathroom!