Defining Privacy: The Moral Right to Resist an Over-Shared Existence

“Sharing” today is more about digital virality than actual human community. But privacy remains a right — for now — to resist exploitation. Privacy isn’t anti-social, but it is hard to define.


| October 2012


The threshold between privacy and exposure becomes more permeable by the minute. But what happens to our private selves when we cannot escape scrutiny, and to our public personas when they pass from our control? In Privacy (Picador, 2012), Garret Keizer provides a philosophical, subtlety argued take on privacy rights in the 21st century — a take that’s not just another alarmist viewpoint on technology, but an essay on what privacy means, and how it contributes to our humanity. In this excerpt from chapter 3, "Penumbras," Keizer attempts to further tackle the definition of privacy. 

The first thing we can say by way of defining privacy is that it exists only by choice. In the absence of choice, privacy is merely the privation with which it shares a common linguistic root, just as sex, work, and singing a song become rape, slavery, and humiliation when forced on us against our will. The girl who died a miserable death at the hands of her psychotic parents was not living a private life; she was living in a hell of loneliness. They are not the same thing.

The confusion of privacy and loneliness amounts to the Gordian knot of modern capitalist societies, the big blue bow of alienation on our package of consumer goods. It also bedevils the thinking of capitalism’s less imaginative critics, who mistakenly assume that by eliminating everything private they will eliminate loneliness too. I will have more to say about that as we continue. For now, suffice it to say that privacy is either a choice or a lie.

We make a clear choice for privacy whenever we hang the PRIVACY PLEASE sign on the outside of a hotel room door. In some places it reads DO NOT DISTURB, which in essence means the same thing. We hang out the sign because we are not prepared to leave the room, because we are not prepared to have someone else come into the room, and because, at least until checkout time, we feel some claim to call the room our own. Until a less negotiable checkout time, we feel the same claim on our lives.

All of us share that basic understanding. Even the hotel housekeepers, many of them recent immigrants whose languages do not contain a word exactly equivalent to the English word privacy — because no language does — can understand the sign. They have been taught to know its meaning in the same way as they have been taught to put their backs to the wall when a paying guest walks by.

Whenever I can afford to stay in a hotel, usually when someone else puts me up in one, I make frequent use of that sign. I enjoy working in hotel rooms, which are like offices with the added amenities of a handy toilet and a phone that never rings. I can work in peace. When any further postponement is likely to create anxieties among the staff, I reverse the sign so that it reads service requested. Then I will leave the room. At that point I consider PRIVACY PLEASE addressed to me.