The right to be left alone

In spite of the liberal democratic valuation of privacy, it is strange how its presumed alliance with secrecy, shame, selfishness or threat provides a dark antithesis to the history of private life. Tracing its etymological roots to the Latin privatus (separated from the rest), privacy carried implicit suggestions of social lack and deprivation that stressed the desirability of a participatory life (publicus) centred in the Roman community. The civic reproach of privacy as a dubious domain of purported self-sufficiency estranged from the cohesive group solidarity of the Greek polis (city-state) was also latent in the ancient binaries of idios (self-centred) and koinos (common to many).

This deeply entrenched although unconfirmed moral ambivalence between the honest transparency of public life and the opaque duplicity of private life makes it difficult to demarcate mess-free borders between them even today. The unhealthy tendency to liken privacy to an unsupervised pre-social state associated with questionable activities and inscrutable motives sanctions all encroachments as attempts to restore public accountability. As the veiled obverse to social legibility, privacy gestures towards an informational asymmetry that demands rectification through revelation.

Disclosure can happen through everyday social practices such as internet banking, online shopping, GPS tracking, biometric cards, media networks or installation of CCTVs in public places. These practices map the individual's interaction with his or her social environment and transcribe the materiality of the body into bytes and pixels of objective data. Additionally, cross-indexing of information acquired across different platforms can generate 'psychographic' character profiles that predict personality by establishing arbitrary linkages between outward action and inward disposition. Such cutting-edge digital technologies play upon the cultural fantasy of the passive, unmediated, perfectly readable, socially transparent body/mind; radically redefining the power dynamics between control and access, disclosure and concealment.

Data-mining can aggravate the rhetoric of social difference, especially when directed at the marginalized sections of society. Apart from jeopardizing the privacy of vulnerable groups such as women, sexual, ethnic or religious minorities, the differently abled or the socio-economically disadvantaged, it may also expose them to further exploitation and typecasting. The crisis of privacy is further intensified in a risk-prone society where social progress and welfare schemes are offset perforce by a strong impetus towards public security and social control. Privacy and risk reciprocally condition each other - the lack of collective involvement, sequestered lifestyles or maintenance of anonymity in social transactions that follows the perception of threat necessitates in turn proactive and intrusive surveillance measures that pre-empt danger by uncovering concealed agency and prior intent to ensure the safe preservation of society. Moreover, the system of tracking, categorizing and targeting of risk in such a society can hardly augur well for privacy.

The right balance between privacy and participation in public affairs is crucial for understanding the complementary relationship between individual and community. Privacy advocates often tend to view public institutions and State interventions as unhappy compromises on personal freedom, ignoring how contemporary liberalism's tendency to substitute privatism for privacy gives increasing endorsement to a sacrosanct space in which individuals can do whatever they want, even indulge in socially irresponsible, unethical, self-destructive or legally contentious acts (as in cases of domestic violence, substance abuse or active euthanasia) provided they do not infringe upon others' personal spaces or liberty. Similarly, publicity defenders may rationalize privacy infringements by appealing to the nothing-to-hide-nothing-to-fear argument, implicitly presupposing that all information (even those relating to lifestyle choices such as culinary and sartorial preferences, religious leanings, reproductive self-determination or sexual orientation) has the potential to undermine the well-being of the community and that its concealment amounts to civic and moral culpability.

This all-or-nothing thesis fails to appreciate that each pole in the privacy-publicity spectrum represents not only an end in itself but also a means of sustaining the other. The desire for personal autonomy can never be absolute but has to be qualified by public engagement. Radical forms of individualism may challenge the pluralist bases of participatory politics that safeguard and guarantee the enjoyment of civil liberties just as it may also threaten legitimate moral and public interests. Likewise, extreme forms of surveillance tend to dilute diversity and undermine human dignity, enforcing voluntary conformism and damaging the space of healthy dissent and inventiveness that can only be engendered in privacy.

The Supreme Court's recent legal ratification of privacy rights also implicitly acknowledges the value of interiority as a state of pure subjective experience that is to be respected for its own sake and not for its perceived conformity to any public pattern or function. Although the full ramifications of the judgment will only become clear with time, nonetheless it is a reasonable assurance of what Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis (later to become the American Supreme Court justice) had pointed out in their classic defence of privacy in the Harvard Law Review (1890) as the 'right to be left alone'.

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