Privacy Online

One of the chief claims in Helen Nissenbaum’s book, Privacy in Context, is that there is a dimension of privacy that is not captured by the other analyses we have read. She calls this privacy in public. The idea is that I can be out in public and yet the information about who I am and where I am going is effectively private. It’s privacy by anonymity. If you follow me or plant a tracking device on me, then this privacy is lost.

There is an analogy with the internet. When we use internet services, we are effectively leaving our private spaces and entering the spaces controlled by companies. In that way, using the internet is like being out in public. Where things are going wrong, she thinks, is that we think of ourselves as enjoying the privacy of anonymity. But we’re actually being tracked and followed.

That is one reason why people worry about the loss of privacy on the internet. It is also why the solutions proposed under the heading of transparency and consent fail to address the problem. We’re being tracked but don’t think of it that way. Various efforts to get us to consent or appreciate what is going on all fail: we don’t read the small print, don’t think it through, or need to use the services enough to sacrifice our privacy.

Our discussion

The problem that Nissenbaum notes is that there is a mismatch between how we think and reality. We think that our movements on the internet enjoy the privacy of anonymity when, in fact, they do not.

As Patrick noted, there are two possible ways of closing a mismatch: make reality conform more closely to the ways we think and make our thinking conform more to reality. The former would involve greater protection for privacy and the latter would involve less. Nissenbaum, of course, wants the greater level of privacy.

At the same time, I wonder if we have not largely taken the other route. That is, I think people are a lot more sophisticated about privacy online now than they used to be even a very short time ago. As Austin put it, people know what information they are giving to Facebook and the rest. They just think the services provided in return are worth the cost. If that is right, the mismatch between expectations and reality may not be as great as it was when she wrote the article. We may have less privacy than people did, but we get things in return that we value more highly.

We had a brief discussion of fears about the government in particular. As Noah pointed out, the FBI conducted surveillance on Martin Luther King, Jr. and used what it found to blackmail him. There is also the legacy of the Stasi in East Germany. We know that states are willing to use private information in nefarious ways, much as individuals do, and we worry what they will do with ready access to a lot of information about everyone.

(Even government officials worry about this. If you read the article on the FBI’s surveillance of King, you will see that the current director of the FBI keeps a copy of the wiretap request on his desk as a reminder of what can go wrong.)

This is a good reason for caring about privacy. But since the technology cat is out of the bag, our best bet is probably to invest our energy in making sure the government does not go rogue on us. I suppose we had to do that anyway: the FBI and Stasi made do with comparatively primitive technology.

Key concepts

  1. Privacy in public.
  2. Nissenbaum’s contextual approach to regulating privacy online


Nissenbaum, Helen. 2011. “A Contextual Approach to Privacy Online.” Daedalus 140 (4): 32–48.