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Communications of the ACM


Privacy Is Dead, Long Live Privacy

Privacy Is Dead, Long Live Privacy, photo illustration

Credit: 2013 Giants Are Small LP

The past few years have been especially turbulent for privacy advocates. On the one hand, the global dragnet of surveillance agencies has demonstrated the sweeping surveillance achievable by massively resourced government organizations. On the other, the European Union has issued a mandate that Google definitively "forget" information in order to protect users.

Privacy has deep historical roots, as illustrated by the pledge in the Hippocratic oath (5th century B.C.), "Whatever I see or hear in the lives of my patients ... which ought not to be spoken of outside, I will keep secret, as considering all such things to be private."11 Privacy also has a number of definitions. A now common one among scholars views it as the flow of information in accordance with social norms, as governed by context.10 An intricate set of such norms is enshrined in laws, policies, and ordinary conduct in almost every culture and social setting. Privacy in this sense includes two key notions: confidentiality and fair use. We argue that confidentiality, in the sense of individuals' ability to preserve secrets from governments, corporations, and one another, could well continue to erode. We call instead for more attention and research devoted to fair use.


Paul Hamill

Privacy as it once was conceived of is inevitably becoming obsolete. Third parties can and do routinely receive information about individuals' activities, location, purchases, communications and health. Given the increased prevalence of detailed information about what everybody is really doing on a daily basis, society is increasingly compelled to reconsider our standards for others' behavior. Ideally these standards will be more open, equitable, and tolerant of each others' differences, rather than oppressive and judgmental. As individuals, faced with the reality that most, if not all, of our behavior may potentially be observable, we must find a balance between behaving in ways that are entirely in line with the mores, standards, and rules that matter to ourselves and others, and with respect to "private" or non-normative behavior, we must take actions and make decisions while being cognizant of the potential for consequences such as social disapproval, embarrassment or even legal liability.

I believe that, in the United States, some of the recent relaxations of things that used to be illegal, such as same-sex marriage and marijuana usage, are actually closely linked to far more monitoring and information of individuals via mobile devices, search engines, email etc, and the pragmatic realization by society that things that many people do, which are basically harmless to others aside from possibly incurring their disapproval, should not be criminal acts.

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