The Inverse Relationship between Secrecy and Privacy

Social Research 77 (2):883-898 (2010)

In civil libertarian discourse, the inverse relationship between government secrecy and privacy is well recognized and widely acknowledged - so widely, in fact, that it can come to seem as though we might regain sufficient privacy simply by cabining official secrecy. But regimes of secrecy that insulate private-sector data processing practices also contribute materially to the decline of privacy, and indeed play a vital role in facilitating government efforts to make citizens' lives transparent. In addition, there is an inverse relationship between openness and privacy that we are inclined to resist discussing. When, for example, a government agency posts on its website documents containing private information about individual citizens, or when a social networking service establishes default rules for transmitting information from member pages to commercial partners, openness contributes materially to the exposure that people experience. Our public discourse about information policy reinforces the devaluation of privacy in two opposite but mutually-reinforcing ways, by valorizing political economies organized around secrecy and by elevating openness as an ultimate good. The shelter that privacy affords for self-development is essential to a healthy democracy. It is therefore important to interrogate both our regimes of secrecy and our discourses about openness.
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