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Ethics Inf Technol (2009) 11:163–174 DOI 10.1007/s10676-009-9201-2



The importance of privacy revisited

Norman Mooradian

Published online: 14 July 2009 Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Abstract James Rachels’ seminal paper ‘‘ Why Privacy Is Important ’’ (1975) remains one of the most influential statements on the topic. It offers a general theory that explains why privacy is important in relation to mundane personal information and situations. According to the the- ory, privacy is important because it allows us to selectively disclose personal information and to engage in behaviors appropriate to and necessary for creating and maintaining diverse personal relationships. Without this control, it is implied, the diversity of relationships would diminish; relationships would ‘‘flatten out’’, we might say. The aspect of the paper that addresses information flows (what I refer to as his information privacy theory) has been of particular interest to computer information privacy theorists. Despite its continued importance to computer privacy theorists, however, the information privacy theory appears to be contradicted by recent developments in computing. In particular, since the publication of Rachels’ paper we have seen an extensive amount of personal information col- lected. Further, recent developments in computing falling under the heading of social computing have brought about a new wave of personal information creation and collec- tion. This paper will reassess and resituate Rachels’ information privacy theory in light of these developments. I will argue that the increasing collection of personal data will not flatten relationships as the information privacy theory predicts because such data lack contextual factors important to Rachels’ general theory. The paper will con- clude by pointing to some areas where Rachels’ general

N. Mooradian ( &) Information Management and Compliance, CookArthur Inc., 575 N. Central Avenue, Upland, CA 91786, USA e-mail: nmooradian@cookarthur.com

theory and where his information privacy theory will continue to be relevant.


Personal relationships Social computing Friendship

Personal information Privacy



Institution specific personal information


Socially sensitive personal information


Biographical personal information


Family educational rights and privacy act


Video privacy protection act


Health insurance portability and accountability


act Gramm leach bliley act


James Rachels’ seminal paper ‘‘ Why Privacy Is Important ’’ remains one of the most influential statements on the topic. While the paper addresses privacy in general, it has been widely anthologized in texts on computer information ethics, thus giving it the status of a starting point in the study of computer information privacy. 1 The central claim of Rachel’s paper is that privacy is a precondition for maintaining the diversity of personal relationships that people value. Personal relationships, Rachels argues, are constituted by certain kinds of behaviors and certain kinds of exchanges of information. Individuals need to be able (a) to control or restrict access to themselves and (b)

1 For example, Quinn (2009), Johnson (2001), Ermann et al. (1997), Johnson and Nissenbaum (1995).



N. Mooradian

restrict and control access to information about themselves in order to cultivate and maintain personal relationships. Rachels’ theory can be broken down into two parts. Part (a) can be described as theory about personal access and space privacy, while Part (b) can be described as a theory about personal information. (When referring to part (a), I will use the label, ‘‘access privacy theory,’’ and when referring to part (b), I will use the phrase ‘‘information privacy theory.’’) 2 For writers in the area of computer information privacy, Rachels’ information privacy theory, has been important because it has been interpreted as offering a way to explain why the accelerated collection of mundane personal information by computer information systems should be viewed with concern. In the case of certain kinds of information, such as medical and financial information, there has been considerable agreement that their unre- stricted collection, processing and dissemination threaten a number of strong interests and rights. However, in the case of non-sensitive, ordinary personal information, no such agreement exists and arguments for restrictions on data collection and sharing have been harder to make. In the computer information privacy literature, Rachels’ infor- mation privacy theory has been seen, along with political autonomy and Fourth Amendment considerations, as a way to ground arguments for greater restrictions over data collection and sharing. (See, Johnson 2001) Because computer information systems collect, store, process and distribute such information, Rachels’ information privacy theory has appeared particularly relevant to information privacy in the context of computer information systems. The basic idea is that, if control over personal information is essential to maintaining a diversity of personal rela- tionships, loss of control should lead to a reduction of this diversity; it should ‘‘flatten out’’ the different types of relationships or reduce their number. The objective of this paper is to reconsider the role Rachels’ information privacy theory has had in the litera- ture on computer information privacy. What prompts this reconsideration is the fact that, in the three decades since ‘‘ Why Privacy Is Important ’’ was published, we have seen an explosion in information systems, personal computing, and the creation of the World Wide Web. Further, in recent

2 Rachels does not make these distinctions himself, as they have been identified in the computer information privacy literature by subsequent. Further, these two broad categories of privacy have been further elaborated by such writers as Solove (2008), Nissenbaum (2004), and De George (2003). For our purposes it is sufficient to note that Rachels’ theory does have a component that address information privacy and that it can be isolated by his intent to explain the importance of privacy in relation to ordinary information as opposed to medical and financial information. Further, it is this element of the theory that has interested writers in the area of computer information privacy.


years, we have seen the emergence of social computing sites and applications such as Facebook, MySpace, You- Tube, and uncountable blogging pages. Once confined to government computer systems, personal information now lives ubiquitously in traditional business systems, Web pages, and personal computers. One would have expected, therefore, that concern about personal relationships, and, specifically, concern about maintaining a diversity of kinds of personal relationships, would be in evidence in many quarters. However, this has not come to pass. There is, as of yet, no widespread concern about the threat to diversity in relationships. In fact, users of social networking sites often express the belief that such systems have expanded the kinds and numbers of relationships they are now able to pursue. This raises the question whether Rachels’ theory of information privacy should continue to be given the cen- trality it has been given in the computer information pri- vacy literature.

Structure of the paper

In this paper, I will reassess the relevance of Rachels’ information theory in light of current developments in information systems and their uses, focusing especially on the rise of Web 2.0 technologies and uses. I will begin by reviewing Rachels’ general theory, though the focus will be on the aspects of the theory that concern the value of personal information. Rachels’ theory should, I will con- tend, predict that diversity in relationships will be threa- tened by increases in the collection and distribution of personal information. Having laid out his theory, I will then consider a challenge to it that claims that its pre- diction of ‘‘flattening’’ personal relationships has not been borne out; that the continued existence of diverse rela- tionships in the face of massive amounts of data creation and collection shows that Rachels’ information privacy theory has been refuted or at least denuded of much of its force. In light of this argument, I will consider how the explosion in Web 2.0 technologies bears on Rachels’ information privacy theory. In particular, I will look at social computing, broken down into the areas of and social networking and blogging. After summarizing recent developments in these areas, I will turn to another trend in computing, namely, the aggregation of data, and consider how it, in combination with social computing, poses increased privacy risks. With these recent developments documented, I will turn to a reassessment of Rachels’ information privacy theory. I will argue that despite the explosion of personal information creation and collections, as well as the increasing aggregation of data, we should not expect to see a decrease in our ability to maintain diverse relationships. My argument will be based on the

The importance of privacy revisited


importance of contextual and modal factors, in relation to personal information, and the importance of physical presence. The paper will come to a close with a re-situ- ating of Rachels’ general theory, as well as his personal information privacy theory. I will argue that, even though Rachels’ seminal paper fails to account for the problems that arise from data collection and aggregation, it still has application to current information practices in two areas. First, his insight into the connection between control over access to oneself and one’s spaces and personal relation- ships is relevant to the problem of surveillance. Second, his information privacy theory has application to certain aspects of social computing in relation to their architecture and feature sets. I will suggest that his theory sheds light on how privacy issues related to these architectures are connected to creating and maintaining personal relation- ships within social computing environments.

Rachels’ theory

The goal of Rachels’ paper is to answer the question posed in its title, i.e., why is privacy important. More precisely, he attempts to explain ‘‘our sense’’ of privacy and its importance in normal, everyday circumstances where nothing of great importance seems to be at stake if a par- ticular piece of personal information is disclosed to a person or entity that does not have a legitimate interest in that information or a particular person is observed carrying out his or her private life during its most quotidian moments. By explaining the importance of privacy with respect to mundane information and situations, Rachels believes he will have provided an account of the impor- tance of privacy not derivative from independently speci- fiable and familiar rights or interests such as a right to or interest in receiving healthcare or in gaining and main- taining employment. 3 To clarify his thesis, Rachels provides a few examples of the kinds of information and situations he is not con- cerned with. His examples of non-mundane information, where an independently specifiable right or interest is at stake, include medical and financial and information, as well as socially embarrassing situations and information. 4 The problems with disclosure of such information, Rachels notes, are easy to explain in terms of the relevant interest or right (325). Disclosure of medical information can lead to exclusion from a medical plan or loss of an opportunity for

3 Whether his account, which appeals to the enabling role privacy plays in forming diverse relationships, succeeds in providing a more independent footing for privacy than those that appeal to health, financial need, and other interests, is a topic for another discussion.

4 Pages 324–325.

employment. Disclosure of financial information may have similar consequences. Disclosure of potentially embar- rassing information about, for example, ones sexual prac- tices, can injure the person’s reputation or social standing, (even if these practices are considered acceptable or normal by the rest of society). Rachels’ account of the importance of privacy in rela- tion to mundane information and situations is well known, so I will summarize it briefly. Control over access to our- selves and information about ourselves is justified by virtue of the enabling role this control plays in our ability to create and maintain the diversity of social relations that we count as part of a good life. Such social relationships include that of being a father, mother, daughter, son, wife, husband, friend, business associate, teammate, etc. These relationships are defined by characteristic behaviors, atti- tudes, and certain kinds of exchanges of information. Different types of relationships call for (and are in part defined by) the giving and withholding of certain kinds and amounts of personal information. Friendship requires dis- closures about ourselves that, say, a business relationship does not. Disclosing our hopes, dreams or disappointments to a friend is appropriate and expected in the case of friendship, but not in the case of a business relationship (unless it has evolved into a friendship). A putative friend to whom such information was not disclosed, where it had been disclosed to others, could justifiably question whether he or she was really considered a friend by the other. In order for persons to have and sustain such relation- ships, intrusions or invasions of privacy that undermine our ability to engage in behaviors constitutive of or critical to these relationships need to be prohibited or limited. Also, disclosures and information exchanges need to be restricted to the parties participating relationship. In the case of behaviors, individuals need to be able control or restrict access to themselves and the spaces in which they conduct their relationships. If they do not have such control, they may be unable to engage in the behaviors constitutive of the specific kind of relationship. There are two reasons why such behaviors might be constrained by a lack of access privacy. First, they may, for emotional reasons, be inhibited with respect to the behavior in a certain way if access privacy is not provided. Second, the behavior may, in itself or derivatively, provide knowledge of the person, which knowledge would nor- mally be reserved to parties of the relationship. Some of this knowledge will be knowledge by acquaintance. Some of it will be convertible into knowledge by description. 5 Still, some of it will be an integral part of the experience of the mutually engaged in behavior. For all these reasons,

5 For a detailed discussion of descriptions and personal information, see Van Der Hoven (2008, pp. 307–310).



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individuals need control over access to themselves and their spaces. This is the part of Rachels’ theory that I labeled above as his access privacy theory. Individuals also need to be able control the flow of information about themselves. The reason is that relation- ships are based on the exclusive and selective exchange of information between parties to the relationship. If indi- viduals lose control over their personal information, it will undermine their ability to make the appropriate selective disclosures or communications. Of course, it will not pre- vent them from actually engaging in the relevant commu- nicative act. However, loss of control over personal information will undermine their ability to selectively and exclusively communicate information about themselves. Once disclosed to third parties or published to the general public, the individual loses the ability to tell a friend (for example) something about himself or herself the friend does not know but, in the role of friend, should know, and what others outside of the role of friend should not know, but, in fact, do know. The information thus loses its value to the individual with respect to the information exchanges that constitute the relationship in question. This is the part of Rachels’ theory that I labeled as his information privacy theory. Rachels thus provides an account of different aspects of privacy that can be broken into at least two broad catego- ries: (a) control over access to oneself and one’s spaces and (b) control over access to one’s information. It is the latter part of the theory, the information privacy theory, that has wielded such influence in the computer privacy literature. For further terminological convenience, I will introduce some general labels meant to cover the different kinds of information discussed in the paper. 6 The labels are not exclusive, but should manage to capture a central feature of the information in question. 7 First, it has been widely noted that certain kinds of information are at the heart of institutional relationships (Johnson, p. 123). Some of Rachels’ examples above of non-mundane information, namely, medical and financial information, fall into this category. Such information is created and managed for the sake of the activities of their respective fields. How that information is controlled affects the ability of the individual to receive services within the given area and sometimes outside of it. I will call this institution specific personal information (IPI).

6 Rachels does not offer a classification of types of personal information. Rather, he offers a number of suggestive examples, as indicated above, to help frame his concerns. 7 These labels are meant to apply to the kinds of information Rachels discusses, though of course, he does not use them himself.


The other kind of non-mundane information that Rachels wants to set aside, embarrassing information, I will simply label socially sensitive personal information (SPI). The two broad categories of IPI and SPI account for a good deal of the information about which there are privacy concerns. They are not exclusive, however, as, for exam- ple, certain medical information might carry a stigma per se or by implication to its causes. Also, certain kinds of SPI might (by being disclosed) lead to disadvantages vis a vis a particular institution. What is important for our purposes is that these two kinds of information are not relevant to Rachels’ thesis. The importance of IPI and SPI are explainable in terms of their institutional and social implications. Rachels, by contrast, is interested in what I will call biographical personal information (BPI). BPI consists of any mundane facts about you that tell something about who you are, what you do or have done, where you have been, etc. Of course, so defined, this broadest class of informa- tion includes the others. So, to make this category useful it is necessary to define it as including all mundane facts about a person, less those facts contained in the other two categories. 8 Using this terminology, we can frame the issue of this paper more clearly. Rachels’ information privacy theory has played a central role in the computer information pri- vacy literature. The reason is that is it precisely the kind of information that I labeled BPI that computer information systems collect, store, process, and distribute and it is precisely these activities that have generated such contro- versy. In the United States, legal structures exist for some important classes of IPI (FERPA, VPPA, HIPAA, GLBA, etc.), but BPI remains particularly problematic because of its disparate, pervasive, and (taken in isolation) seemingly innocuous character. It remains relatively unregulated in the United States, especially in the private sector. 9 Civil law also offers spotty protection. 10 With this in mind, let us turn to a challenge posed to Rachels’ information privacy theory.

8 This definition is not a mere contrivance. Most of the debate about personal information privacy concerns mundane information such as is generated by purchase transactions, mobile phone records, includ- ing GPS positioning, Web pages browsed, etc. I use the term ‘‘biographical’’ for all of this diverse data because, taken together, it can be used to tell a story about ones’ life history or segments of it.

9 The situation in Europe is different. The EU Data Directive 95/46 does in fact encompass BPI, as does the Safe Harbor agreement between the EU and United States. 10 Solove (2007, 2008).

The importance of privacy revisited



challenge to Rachels: the coexistence of masses


BPI with diversity in relationships

Writing in the late 1990s, Deborah Johnson observed that vast amounts of personal information existed in databases and computer information systems and yet despite this fact people seemed to be able to maintain a diversity of per- sonal relations in a way that Rachels’ theory predicted they could not. She says:

Rachels seems right about the way information affects relationships. We control relationships by controlling the information that others have about us. When we lose control over information, we lose significant control over how others perceive and treat us. However, while Rachels seems right about this, his analysis does not quite get at what is worrisome about all the information gathering that is facilitated by computer technology. That is, the information gathering and exchange that goes on via computer technology does not seem, on the face of it, to threaten the diversity of personal relationships each of us has. For example, huge quantities of data now exist about my purchases, phone calls, medical con- dition, work history, and so on, I am able to maintain a diversity of personal relationships.’’ (pp. 121–122)

Johnson’s challenge should be of concern. Since the time of her writing, data collection has intensified and diversified, and it has done so with respect to the type of personal information I labeled BPI. In-store transactions are increasingly tracked using store cards and other col- lection methods. More and more consumer transactions are carried out online, which means that even more and richer transactional data is being collected. Cell phones now incorporate GPS tracking in order to locate cell phone users in emergency situations. Surveillance cameras exist in more and more places and, being linked with recognition software, are capable of recognizing license plate numbers and letters (for example) and linking them back to com- puter databases, thus identifying our comings and goings in certain locations. Despite all this, there is no evidence that people are unable to maintain the diversity of personal relationships that Rachels wrote about. In addition, Johnson seems correct to say that the worry that such information collection has engendered concerns problems of control and harms that come from lack of control. It is not the diversity of relationships, in general, that is threatened by this lack of control. Rather, it is the existence or health of particular relationships that is at risk. Disclosure and dissemination of various kinds of personal information can easily injure a person’s reputation and spoil some of his or her important relationships. Further, this information might be precisely the kind of information

that a given person would have preferred to keep to himself or herself and would have therefore not disclosed within the context of any of his or her personal relationships. The fact of increased flows and stores of personal information, especially BPI, should cause us to revaluate the relevance of Rachel’s information privacy theory to the concerns of computer information privacy theorists. To do so properly, however, we should consider not just recent history in the realm of data collection and processing but also current trends and near term possibilities. In particular, the very rapid rise of social computing in the context of Web 2.0 environments has opened the channels to massive amounts of new, personal information that was hitherto far out of the reach of traditional information systems. The information collected and exchanged via social network sites such as Facebook and MySpace should surely be relevant to Rachels’ theory and we would be remiss not to consider it. Also, while available in sporadic and nascent form, the aggregation of BPI is still in its early stages. While one can ‘‘Google’’ a person (that is, search the Web by entering their name in a search engine) and collect an impressive scattering of BPI tidbits, the real aggregation is still in the offing as far as the average person is concerned. But aggregation is a significant area of concern in respect of privacy as Daniel Solove has indicated by identifying it as one of the central problem areas in privacy law. 11 Hence, we should look carefully at how increased and improved aggregation of BPI might affect, one way or another, the relevance of Rachels’ theory to information privacy theorists. The next two sections of this paper will describe these recent developments in information systems and computing. The next section will discuss social com- puting, and, in particular, social networks and blogging. The following section will take up the issue of aggregation.

Social computing

The rise of social computing in the context of Web 2.0 environments has dramatically altered the information privacy landscape. While the designation, ‘‘Web 2.0’’ may be part marketing aspiration and part technical, it suggests the idea of a changed from static Web pages, portals and Web interfaced database applications to a new form of interactive, personal Web computing that allows internet users to engage in various forms of self-publishing. Two central components of the Web 2.0 experience are blogging and social networking sites. Blogging is a source for var- ious forms of self expression. While political opinion makes up the lion’s share of blogging, very personal information is also a common theme, with many blogs

11 Solove (2008, p. 117).



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being the equivalent of digital diaries. Social networking sites provide for liking of personal profiles and pages among ‘‘fiends’’. Blogging and posting of images and videos comprise a large part of the content of social net- working sites, as does messaging of various sorts. Unique to social computing, however, are the linkages of friends, which linkages are informational and functional. That is, they display the structure of relationships and they propa- gate information across these structures. Daniel Solove’s recent book, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet, is an excellent guide to this new privacy terrain. I will take a few examples from it by way of illustration.


Blogging is a channel for self disclosure for many people. It serves as a digital diary for many persons, with the dif- ference that in many cases it is available to anyone with internet access. Solove recounts the story of a blog called the ‘‘Washingtonienne,’’ in which a young woman working on the Hill in Washington D.C. posted regularly about the personal details of her daily life, including her work and her attitude towards it, as well as her intimate relationships. Having started up a relationship with an attorney, she blogged about the intimate details of their sexual encoun- ters and some of his preferred practices. When he became aware of this, he angrily broke off the relationship. 12 Second, blogging is often an avenue for third party revelation, often by strangers, of selective personal infor- mation. Often, a person is captured in an embarrassing or shameful moment by a digital camera. Sometimes a per- son’s actions or alleged actions are blogged about by oth- ers. Another story recounted by Solove concerns a Korean girl who allowed her dog to defecate on a subway and did not clean up after it. This act (or omission, as the case may be) was captured by a digital camera and a picture of her was posted on the Web. She became the object of scorn by a multitude of bloggers and suffered psychological trauma as a result. 13 Blogging is on the rise.

There were about 50 blogs in 1999, a few thousand more in 2000, more than 10 million in 2004, and more than 30 million in 2005. By the end of July 2006 there were approximately 50 million blogs. (p. 21)

Presumably most bloggers understand that their postings are public and that they are accessible by millions of internet users. However, some may not and most, one may

12 Solove (2007, pp. 50–54).

13 Solove (2007, pp. 1–4).


speculate, have not fully realized how available and lasting their disclosures will be and how out of their control they will remain. They may also be unaware of the extent and limitations of the existing legal protections of such infor- mation, especially given the recent legal immunities pro- vided to internet access, service and content providers. (In particular, section 230 of the CDA.)

Social networks

The second leg of social computing is social networks. There were only a few social networking sites in the mid 1990s, while now there are a few hundred, with MySpace, Facebook, and a few others being the most well known (Solove 2007, p. 24). Social networks are venues for extensive and rich personal information flows and disclo- sures. Registered users are given a set of pages in which they can list profile information (e.g., name, gender, edu- cation, residence, marital status, sexual preference, politi- cal affiliation, and religious identification), post photos and links, blog, send messages to ‘‘friends’’, chat, etc. Most significantly, users’ pages often list the users’ friends (individuals whom the user explicitly added as a ‘‘friend’’). On some sites, by clicking on a given friend, a user can see that persons list of friends. Another feature indicates that a friend is held in common with another friend. (Examples from Facebook.) Social networking sites provide some privacy protec- tions that generic blogging lacks. Blogging is an act of publication to an audience. The audience can consist of the entire Web or a group formed around a common interest. Social networking sites provide a set of privacy controls (which vary from site to site) that allow users to restrict their pages to friends and to restrict what is displayed to friends. However, these sites, because of their architecture and nomenclature (take the name ‘‘MySpace’’) offer a false sense of security to many. Neophyte users are often una- ware of the privacy controls and may commit some erad- icable faux paux before gaining mastery of them. Most users remain unaware or think little about the fact that all their personal information is housed on servers, often owned by corporations, and that these corporations are only bound (if that is not too strong a word) by their privacy policies. Since many sites are commercial enterprises that have a business model based on harvesting personal information for marketing purposes, many users’ half cogitated belief that what happens on these sites stays on these sites is, to put it mildly, naive. Finally, social networking sites pose a unique risk that, because it is related to their raison d’eˆtre, should be obvious to their users, but most likely is not fully consid- ered. The purpose of social networking sites is to create communication channels and linkages between users.

The importance of privacy revisited


Many sites make these linkages visible to users with the result that it is easy to see with whom a given user asso- ciates. Also, as personal information is communicated across social network channels, it will often find its way to unintended recipients. Now, one might point out that this happens in the physical social world, where gossip passes from person to person. But as Solove notes, in the physical social world, our social circles tend not to intersect and for the most part information stays within circles. 14 Social networking sites typically do not replicate these semi exclusive circles but rather expand the circumference of the user’s one circle. This architectural fact has privacy implications that many users surely fail consider, not least of which is that messages and information available within the protected canals of the social network site can always be thrown over the fence into the ocean of the World Wide Web. One therefore has to be concerned that users of social networking sites may be inclined to volunteer much more information about themselves than they otherwise would if they understood the technical architecture, business model, and legal context that characterize most of these sites.


The other more recent, though less developed, trend in computing that is of relevance to Rachel’ information privacy theory is the aggregation of data. Aggregation is the bringing together into a single data structure or inter- face data produced from a variety of different sources. Linking data such as names and social security numbers allows personal data to be aggregated. At its best, aggre- gation does more than just collect personal information. It brings it into a usable structure that eliminates duplication, filters out irrelevant information, calculates statis- tics, and summarizes data to allow for relatively quick comprehension. As mentioned above, anyone Googling a person’s name for the first time gets a shocking glimpse into the future of aggregated personal data. However, it is only a glimpse. What is collected typically consists of highly selective, mainly self published comments from a person or relatively public facts about that person. Much of it is of little interest to anyone, including the data subject him or herself. 15 If aggregation techniques improve, however, this could change the privacy picture with respect to BPI quite dra- matically. Taken by themselves, certain pieces of

14 Solove (2007, pp. 176–181).

15 For example, among the things turned up by a Google search on my name is a question I asked about what turned out to be a timing problem with a Visual Basic script I wrote to access an Oracle database. It is not embarrassing information, but not at all interesting to anyone.

information do not communicate much about a person. Taken together, however, they could communicate a great deal. Given all the BPI now available thanks to the increasing quantities of transactional data harvested by commercial applications and now the increasingly massive amounts of personal information produced through blogging and social networking sites, it is easy to imagine that not far off in the future we will see more and more successful data aggre- gations. There are challenges to this, as data is produced by diverse sources and largely unstructured. But as the com- mercial value of this data becomes apparent, we can expect that serious efforts will be made to harvest and process it with the goal of producing useful personal data aggregates or digital dossiers. Technical challenges can be addressed with data mining programs, human intervention, and improved front end structuring using XML and other data formats. Further, existing legal structures do not offer much protection to BPI, so it is not implausible to believe that entrepreneurial information technology companies will 1 day offer very comprehensive digital dossiers at a rea- sonable price. These dossiers might be constructed on the fly as the product of a search, delivered by order after human intervention is added to produce a more accurate and readable result, or delivered from a massive, repository of constantly updated dossiers. Such a service would save people quite a lot of time that they would otherwise spend Googling names and fishing around social networking sites, and it would likely deliver far more information in a more comprehensible form. In the next section of this paper, we turn to reassessing the relevance of Rachels’ information privacy theory to computer information pri- vacy issues.

Reassessing the theory

As is evident from above, the sort of information divulged through a great deal of blogging in and outside of the context of social networking sites is the sort of personal information that is at the center of Rachels’ information privacy theory, which information I have labeled BPI. If this sort of information were to be captured and aggregated into a useable form so that comprehensive personal profiles for just about everyone were to be easily accessible to just about anyone, Rachels’ theory concerning the value of BPI would lead us to expect that diversity in personal rela- tionships would disappear. Persons without any deep relationship with each other would have access to a detailed, current biography filled with the most important facts and events in the person’s life. But this is just the kind of information that, according to Rachels, must be meted out with caution in order to avoid its devaluation as the



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exchange currency of personal relationships. To quote Rachels:

‘‘Suppose I believe that someone is my close friend, then I discover that he is worried about his job and is afraid of being fired. But, while he has discussed this situation with several other people, he has not men- tioned it at all to me. And then I learn that he writes poetry, and that this is an important part of his life; but while he has shown his poems to many other people, he has not shown them to me.’’ (p. 328)

Any good digital profile worthy of the name would surely contain facts such as this, as well as other bio- graphical information such as past relationships, current behaviors etc. that might help explain why the friend’s job is in peril and why he writes poetry. To engage in hyper- bole for a moment, everyone would be an open book to everyone else. If the importance given to Rachels’ infor- mation privacy theory is justified, then, we should expect that the complex structure of relationships would be flat- tened as a kind of personal information egalitarianism emerged. Acquaintances with sufficient motivation to know a person could ramp up quite quickly through dili- gent study and join his or her ever widening circle of friends and confidents. It is doubtful, however, that this comprehensive digital dossier, whose specter I have raised, will undermine diversity. It can certainly be expected to harm relationships as Johnson predicted and Solove has documented. Already, one can hear anecdotal stories about how third parties have found out things about others that they were not intended to know; parents have logged onto social networking sites to learn about their children’s friends and employers have done the same to learn about their prospective employees. Rumor and gossip are magnified on the internet as Solove contends and a variety of information types such as digital video capture people during importune moments and infelicitous acts. Relationships of various sorts can be greatly harmed if the concerned party becomes apprised of such information, as it is becoming increasingly likely he or she will.

The problem of contextual and modal variables

It is doubtful, however, that relationships will flatten out in the manner described above even as more BPI becomes available and even if aggregation rises to the level of making digital dossiers pervasive. The reason, I believe, is that Rachels’ general theory, which attempts to address a number of kinds of intrusions, presupposes certain con- textual and modal variables that do not extend to the masses of BPI stored in computer information systems. These include caring, affection, trust, concern, and other


such emotional factors. This, in the end, undermines his theory’s usefulness as a theory of information privacy, even if he might have hoped that it would have this application as some of his key examples suggested he did. 16 Privacy theorists such as Reiman 17 raised the ques- tion of contextual and modal variables early on. While Reiman’s criticism may be uncharitable to Rachels’ broader account, it does capture the key weakness of the information privacy theory. A brief summary of Reiman’s criticism should put the issue in perspective. In his 1976 paper ‘‘Privacy, Intimacy, and Personhood’’, Reiman criticized Rachels’ theory on the grounds that it left out the essential contextual variable of caring. For Reiman, it is this contextual variable of caring that gives meaning to the exchange, not the information per se. Caring is the primary determinant of the relationship- creating character of the exchanged, with the information content being secondary (though not unimportant, one would assume). Thus, the most intimate details of a per- son’s life could be told to a psychoanalyst without creating an intimate friendship. And this is not because the exchange is asymmetrical. Reiman imagines two psycho- analysts analyzing each other in their role as professionals. What is missing in the information exchange between analyst and patient is caring, and not just caring simpliciter, but the sort of caring that defines friendships. (Certainly a psychoanalyst would show and feel professional care and concern for a patient, but this is not the same as the caring that characterizes friendship.) 18 There are modal variables as well. The information privacy theory does not give proper emphasis to the fact that the exchanges are communication acts with modal characteristics. What is important is that I tell you some- thing, not that you acquire that particular information about me. 19 Hence, to return to Rachels’ example quoted above, I might be miffed that you did not tell me about your poetry. What miffs me, however, is not that the information is out there and I don’t have it, but rather, you did not commu- nicate it to me with the intent of doing so. If I learned from some posting on a blog site that you write poetry and it is clear from the posting that the information was gained through observing or surveilling you, but you later tell me that you write poetry, I would still be quite glad to learn this from you and our relationship would proceed nicely.

16 Pages 324–325.

17 Reiman (1976).

18 To be fair to Rachels, his general theory does, I believe, have room for the emotional context that Reiman believes is missing. However, Reiman’s criticism does apply to the information privacy theory, which is the part of his theory that has been seen as so important to computer information privacy theorists.

19 I owe this point to Laurie Schrage from a discussion of an earlier draft of this paper.

The importance of privacy revisited


Likewise, if you told me you were gaining weight, I would also be glad that you confided in me, even though the fact confided may be available to public observation. The importance of these contextual and modal variables gives us reason to believe that the continued collection of BPI will not, in fact, flatten out relationships, as Rachels’ information theory would predict. These variables are an integral part of the relationship building process. They are constituent factors in the behaviors and communicative acts that define different types of personal relationships. But it is precisely these factors that are absent in relation to the masses of BPI collected, stored, and processed. The extension of Rachels’ general theory to BPI thus fails for reasons that ground its plausibility in relation to privacy claims for certain kinds of behaviors, communicative acts, and personal situations. 20 A similar problem can be raised by examining the role of shared space and physical pres- ence in the creation of friendships. The next section of the paper will address this issue.

The problem of physical presence

In addition the sort of contextual and modal factors of information exchanges discussed above, there is another reason why the existence of the digital dossier should not be expected to flatten out relationships. The reason is that much of the relationship building information that is exchanged between persons in a friendship or some other type of intimate relationship requires physical presence. The parties to the relationship must share physical spaces for appropriate amounts of time to share personal infor- mation critical to their relationships. This is accounted for in Rachels’ space privacy theory, but as with the contextual and modal factors described above, it is absent from BPI and its absence undermines the Rachelean information privacy theory. To explain and support this claim, I will draw on a paper by Dean Cocking and Steve Matthews on a different topic, virtual friendship. In their paper, ‘‘Unreal Friends’’ (2001), they argue that computer mediated personal relationships will lack features essential to friendship. Their argument focuses on text based communications, but its claims and justifications are applicable (in varying degrees) to richer multimedia com- munications. While their argument is meant to cast doubt

20 One might object that too much available BPI might still undermine personal relationships because it might deflate the value of an important element in the exchanges, namely, the content. If fiends know a good deal of biographical information about each other, they might just run out of things to talk about. This objection fails to take into account that there is always much to talk about, that one can convey one’s feelings about any of the known biographical facts and that friends can speak about their shared experiences as they happen, among other things.

on the possibility of pure cyber friendships, it has impli- cations for our understanding of how personal information exchanges contribute to constructing diverse relationships and what aspects of privacy are critically related to this process. As a preliminary to their argument, Cocking and Mat- thews survey different theories of friendship. Theses include Aristotle’s ‘‘Mirror Theory’’, which they interpret as basing friendship in finding similar traits in another. Also included is an account they call the ‘‘Secrets View’’, according to which mutual self-disclosure is the basis of friendship. The third theory they call the ‘‘Drawing View.’’ On this theory, the basis of friendship is a dynamic, identity forming relation between two persons. Friendship not only allows sharing of information and experience. It is a rela- tionship that shapes and alters the individual’s conception of self. As presented, the three theories do not have to be mutually exclusive. The different features and aspects of friendship that they emphasize might be combined into a more comprehensive theory. Further, as the authors note, all three theories require self disclosure of some form, though the Secrets View places self disclosure at its center. The centerpiece of their argument revolves around the idea of interpretation. Whichever view of friendship one takes, the contextual interaction and interpretation of the friend’s character is essential to the relationship. Friends learn about each other through their mutual involvement and engagement in situations and their reactions to and within these situations. For example, one might be at a party with a friend. His ex-partner arrives. Upon her arri- val, the friend begins to look nervous, agitated or depres- sed. You learn something about his relationship to her from his non-verbal reactions, intonation, or even direct, in context comments. Earlier that night, you might have noticed three pad locks on his door, and on your way to the party you may have observed his reactions to traffic con- ditions or news on the radio. From this you glean some- thing about his attitudes toward safety, inconvenience brought on by other people, and politics. The important point here is that much if not most of what you learn about a friend comes through his or her in contextually embedded responses, many semi-voluntary or involuntary, to a myriad of events and situations in the physical world. Given the above, we can see that the self-revelation critical to friendship requires physical presence. The friend is invited to share space and time with the other friend. This includes sharing presence in public spaces but also, and more importantly, sharing private spaces. In such spaces friends reveal much about themselves, and much of this revelation is simply in their reaction to things, and is therefore not under their voluntary control. By contrast, Cocking and Matthews argue that Net or cyber friends are excluded from the kind of physical presence that permits



N. Mooradian

this essential form of self-revelation. Cyber relations, mediated by, for example, messaging, are controlled and filtered. Each person attempts to represent himself or her- self in a way that he or she chooses. People select their words carefully and take time to respond to communica- tions so that a controlled and deliberate representation is maintained. Further, even if they wished to disclose much or all of themselves, they could not. First, there is much that they do not know about themselves. The friend described in the example above may not know that he carries feelings for his ex-partner, that he is a bit paranoid about personal safety, and that he is impatient with people. It is only by being with him in the right circumstances that his verbal and non-verbal behavior would clue one in to this. Second, even if the friend were aware of many such aspects of himself, giving expression to them in writing would prove to be too tedious and laborious to be practi- cable. For these reasons, Cocking and Matthews conclude that cyber friendships are not possible. 21 If Cocking and Matthews are correct, 22 the sorts of information exchanges that build and maintain personal relationships are not, in the case of intimate relationships, exhausted by those that can be represented by linguistically expressed information. The reasons for this are largely practical. Individuals are simply limited in how much information they can disclose verbally by a variety of constraints. This finding has direct relevance to the ques- tion whether the increased capture and aggregation of personal information will undermine diversity in relation- ships. If BPI does not contain much of the critical ‘‘infor- mation’’ required to build and maintain relationships, we can expect that its existence in massive quantities that it will not bring about an end to this diversity.

Re-situating Rachels’ theory

If my arguments are correct, Rachels’ theory of personal information privacy fails to capture what is important about BPI and hence cannot be expected to be borne out or vindicated by the ever increasing collections of personal

21 In her paper, ‘‘Friends, Friendsters, and Top 8: Writing community into being on social network sites’’, discussed later in this paper, danah boyd, explores the concept of ‘‘friending’’ within social networking sites. She argues against the belief that friending someone on a social networking site is the equivalent of becoming friends and explores the many purposes and implication of friending within this context. Her findings, at least initially, are consistent with Cocking and Matthews thesis, and their thesis, in turn, is likely to provide an explanation of some of underlying causes of these findings.

22 See two recent, separately written papers for further exploration of their thesis, ‘‘Plural Selves and Relational Identity’’ (Cocking) and ‘‘Identity and Information Technology’’ (Matthews) in Information Technology and Moral Philosophy.


data being produced through traditional business transac- tions, e-commerce, and social computing. There are some aspects of the general theory, and even of the information privacy theory, however, that may have continued rele- vance as these and new trends continue. Rachels’ general theory does have something to say about surveillance. Also, the information privacy theory has something to say about social computing, though not what was originally thought important. I will conclude with a discussion issues.


As mentioned throughout the paper, Rachels’ offered an explanation of the value of personal access and space pri- vacy, in addition to an explanation of the value of infor- mation privacy. (Different privacy theorists will categorize his concerns differently; e.g., De George, Nissenbaum 23 ) Rachels’ concern with personal access and space privacy is evident in many of his examples. Physical presence and observation loom large in these examples, as does his concern with the sorts of behaviors that are appropriate and necessary for relationships. To take just one example:

‘‘Again, consider the differences between the way that a husband and wife behave (italics mine) when they are alone and the way they behave in the com- pany of third parties. Alone, they may be affectionate, sexually intimate, have their fights and quarrels, and so on; but with others, a more ‘‘public’’ face is in order. If they could never be alone together, they would either have to abandon the relationship that they would otherwise have as husband and wife or else behave in front of others in ways they now deem inappropriate.’’ (330)

This aspect of Rachels’ theory that is concerned with control over access to oneself will have continued rele- vance as electronic surveillance becomes more pervasive. Digital cameras already pervade private commercial spaces where people shop and spend much of their leisure time. They are also increasingly found in public spaces such as government buildings and even public streets and parks. As people carry out much of their lives in these commercial and public spaces, and therefore undertake to form, build and maintain relationships in these spaces, Rachels’ theory will have relevance to debates about surveillance. It will not, however, be the only or dominate consider- ation, as numerous theorists have advanced powerful arguments against surveillance based on conceptions of

23 For example, De George’s (2003) distinctions between space privacy, body/mental privacy, and communication privacy are directly relevant. Also relevant are Nissenbaum’s Principle 1 concerning government intrusions and Principle 3 concerning ‘‘intrusions into spaces and spheres deemed private or personal’’.

The importance of privacy revisited


political and moral autonomy, 24 self development, con- textual appropriateness 25 and other factors. Further, in Western democracies, counter balancing legal structures and institutions such as constitutional restraints on gov- ernmental intrusion and strong property rights ensure that many people will have control over their own private spaces and will be able to carry out their relationships there without inhibition, even if public and private spaces prove inhospitable. Still, Rachels’ insights about the importance of restricted access to the self and its spaces to personal relationships will add another important consideration to the many that have and will be advanced against the encroachments of electronic surveillance technologies.

Social networking

As mentioned in the discussion of social networking above, social networking sites are distinguished from other Web 2.0 applications in that they make explicit a person’s net- works of friends and their structures, and they communi- cate personal information through these structures. They therefore capture new information and pose new risks. While I have argued that the collection and aggregation of this information will not vindicate Rachels’ theory of personal information privacy, it may be that it has appli- cation to some aspects of social computing itself. More specifically, it may be that Rachels’ information privacy theory can be used to illuminate privacy issues that arise within social networks and may help guide architects of those sites. 26 As danah boyd has documented, social networking sites are highly mediated environments with architectures that constrain and shape the relationships and norms that arise in association with them. They provide ‘‘technical affor- dances’’ that allow users to create site specific relationships that depend upon these affordances. Conversely, they may lack affordances that support a variety of offline relation- ships. Her discussion of ‘‘friending’’ is of particular rele- vance. As boyd describes:

When people login to a social network site, they are required to craft a Profile. This Profile includes information about their demographics and tastes, a self-description Once a user finds a Profile of a friend (or anyone else), they can ‘‘add’’ them The Friends list typically includes a list of photos or handles with links to that person’s Profile. Thus,

24 For example, Johnson (2001), Nissenbaum (2004), and Solove (2003), Garfinkel (2000), Rosen (2001), and many others.

25 Nissenbaum (2004).

26 Also, to the extent that social networking sites support real time communication and video meetings, surveillance concerns will arise as they do for physical spaces.

when users are surfing social network sites, they can hop from one Profile to another through a chain of Friendship. Beyond this general description, the details of how Friendship works are site-specific. 27

The creation of these friendship links are thus mediated by and structured by the architecture and functionality of the site. Typically, this means that one can easily make a request of another user that your profile be added to his or her list of friends and he or she can easily accept your request. As boyd notes, the reasons for making and accepting friend-add requests vary, some resembling the reasons and motives that people seek out off-line friend- ships, some unique to social networking environments, and some related to off-line social relations distinct from close personal relations. So, a person might want to add a real- world friend to his or her list; he or she may simply want to connect to other profiles to share and learn about various postings and techniques used; he or she may want to attract fans, clients, or create some kind of following for business, political or other purposes. The problem that social networking sites present is that they use the broad category of ‘‘friend’’ to represent links between user profiles. This means that social networking sites offer very crude tools for creating and maintaining diverse relationships. The category of friend does not represent the many kinds of off-line relationships that people would like to represent in social networking sites. Also, to the extent that the linkages between friends creates linkages between their friends’ lists, channels of commu- nication are extended and hence control of personal information in relation to its intended audience is weak- ened. As mentioned above, one’s circle of friends grows as friends are added, and added to it are their circles of friends. Rachels’ theory of personal information privacy should have application to this new context. It offers insights into how information flows within social networking sites are related to the creation and maintenance of personal rela- tionships. Since the purpose of such sites is to provide new and enabling venues for social interaction, a theory con- necting the value of personal information to relationships should be of interest to theorists and to the developers of such sites (as should the work of other theorists such as Nissenbaum who deal with the relation of the social norms governing information flows). Further, as Rachels notes, his theory is meant to address not only the relationships familiar to a given cultural context, but other cultural contexts and, importantly, new relationships that will arise in new contexts. Social networking sites in particular and Web 2.0 computing and its successors are likely to form a

27 Boyd (2006).



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new context for social interaction and create new rela- tionships. These relationships will be information based and will consist, in large part, of information exchanges. Some of these relationships may be judged by their par- ticipants in terms of the content and quantity of information provided to members of the relationship to the exclusion of persons outside of it. It can therefore be expected that Rachels’ personal information theory will be of relevance in understanding how privacy is important to the func- tioning of these sites and the relationships in them, even if it is seen to lose relevance in explaining how information privacy is important to our relationships generally.


If the above arguments are correct, the advent of increased personal data capture and aggregation will not bring about the elimination of or weaken diversity in personal rela- tionships. The reason is that the relationship building characteristics of personal information exchanges include more than the static content of the information. They include contextual and modal variables such as caring, intent, source, and others. Also, they depend upon con- textual variables limited to the physical world. Conse- quently, to the extent that the interest that information theorists have taken in Rachels’ paper has depended on his theory of the value of BPI, we can expect this interest to wane in the coming years, despite the vast increases in BPI harvesting and processing that are sure to come. Still, the theory does have something to say about social networking and may see revived interest in that respect. Also, Rachels’ paper did anticipate concerns about the inhibiting effects of surveillance in relation to an important aspect of our lives. We should not be surprised, therefore, to see his paper cited well into the future.



Boyd, D. (2006). Friends, friendsters, and myspace top 8: Writing community into being on social network sites. First Monday 11:12, December. http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_

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