Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Taxonomy of Internet Privacy Problems...

Too often, people lump together very different problems like posting embarassing photos on Facebook and a hacker breaking into a database and stealing Social Security numbers, all under the umbrella term of "Internet privacy". Obviously, these are vastly different problems, and policies designed to address them would (and should) require vastly different solutions.

Daniel Solove, in his book Understanding Privacy, puts forth a taxonomy of Internet privacy problems to draw out the many different types of problems out there.

His four principle categories include:

  1. Information Collection - what information is being gathered and through what means is it occurring.

  2. Information Processing - how it is stored, combined, manipulated, searched, and used.

  3. Information Dissemination - how it is released or transferred to others.

  4. Invasion - impingements directly on the individual.
This taxonomy is pretty straightforward, and it ought to be helpful to anyone trying to make sense out of the myriad of "Internet privacy problems" thrown around in the headlines. Most people's knee-jerk reaction of "Hey, that's an invasion of my privacy!" isn't really an adequate analysis for scholars, not to mention policymakers. Solove's taxonomy, by drawing distinctions among privacy problems, helps clarify the issue and bring meaning and context to the news headlines we often come across.

Perhaps what's even more interesting, however, is his examination of why privacy should even be considered a good thing. Sure, privacy is a core value that we all instinctively cherish, but what happens when it comes into conflict with other core values like free speech or security? Even though his taxonomy is interpretively helpful, Solove's greater contribution, in my opinion, is his argument that the value of privacy should be determined on the basis of its importance to society, NOT in terms of individual rights. Privacy's value in a particular context "depends upon the social importance of the activities that it facilitates".

To try and conceive of privacy not in terms of individual rights but in a more collectivist sense might be a little counterintuitive, but it's an interesting logical exercise. I just wonder what the ramifications might be if we conceived of other individual rights - like free speech, free assembly, free religion, etc. - in similar non-individualistic terms.



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