A while back, in an occasion that has actually been written about by one of my instructors, Forbes contributor Michael Humphrey, I brought up the issue of encryption in a senior-level college journalism class. Specifically, we were talking about the new encrypted email service ProtonMail

My earnest expectation was that encryption, personal information security and privacy in general would be unequivocally and uncontroversially popular. I have long regarded privacy as a basic right and as an absolute good, and my naive expectation was that any journalist, even (or perhaps especially) a student journalist, would have a similar attitude.

I was way off.

A surprising number of people voiced the opinion that encryption could be dangerous if used by terrorists and criminals. Several people actually suggested some technology that was “encrypted” but still accessible by the government. No one that I can remember seemed to think that encrypted email was something a law-abiding citizen would or should want.

Humphrey wrote a fair bit about the possible cultural and sociological conditions for this to play out–fear of Islamic State and millenials having grown up in a post-9/11 world, among others. But what about views towards privacy in general? I think the views towards communication privacy are actually experiencing something of a radical shift. In the past, any invasion of privacy has largely been viewed as contemptible; now we will put happily put up with much more.

There’s an excellent article from NYT’s The Upshot that gets at the heart of this issue–“Americans say they want privacy but act as if they don’t”. In short, the article exposes the doublethink we all engage in by claiming to value privacy while giving it up more than ever. But buried in there is an even more interesting bit:

“People with more education and higher incomes tend to be more sensitive about their online privacy, Pew found.”

That ought to be alarming, because there is no reason whatsoever that a wealthier, more educated person ought to value privacy more. And it’s not saying that more educated people are more informedabout privacy or best practices for keeping themselves secure, but simply that they are more sensitive than their less-educated counterparts. I’m tempted to view this as an aspect of digital literacy–since it could be framed as a question of whether or not people know that they can and should value their privacy.

In any case, the idea that there is a socio-economic element to the subjective value of privacy raises another, more philosophical question about why privacy might be valued at all, and why it seems to matter more not just to some individuals but to some classes of people.

Quoting Georgetown University professor Julie Cohen in an article in The Atlantic by Jathan Sadowski (emphasis mine):

Cohen doesn’t think we should treat privacy as a dispensable instrument. To the contrary, she argues privacy is irreducible to a “fixed condition or attribute (such as seclusion or control) whose boundaries can be crisply delineated by the application of deductive logic. Privacy is shorthand for breathing room to engage in the process of … self-development.

In short, cohen is making the point that we’re treating privacy as a means and not an end in itself. I think there may actually be a bit more nuance here–I do hear rhetoric talking about privacy as an end but it’s still often treated as a means to something else, a sort of linguistic bait-and-switch.

I can’t offer a solid explanation why privacy in principle might matter more to certain classes of people. Perhaps the idea of “self-development” is itself perceived by some to be a luxury of the bourgeoisie and so without a value placed on that there’s little reason to value privacy highly.

Privacy as an instrumental value

I had a conversation with a friend of mine where the question of whether privacy might be considered aninstrumental value or an end-in-itself–essentially, this is the question of whether privacy is valuable for its own sake or valuable as a means to some other end.

She argued that privacy had to be an instrumental value because it was useless without some other more basic values that it enables, primarily social cohesion through personal image control and self-development.

Quoting an excellent article by Kate Murphy (that was brought to my attention by my friend):

The problem is that if you reveal everything about yourself or it’s discoverable with a Google search, you may be diminished in your capacity for intimacy. This goes back to social penetration theory, one of the most cited and experimentally validated explanations of human connection. Developed by Irwin Altman and Dalmas A. Taylor in the 1970s, the theory holds that relationships develop through gradual and mutual self-disclosure of increasingly private and sensitive personal information.

“Building and maintaining an enduring, intimate relationship is a process of privacy regulation,” said Dr. Altman, now an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Utah. “It’s about opening and closing boundaries to maintain individual identity but also demonstrate unity with another, and if there are violations then the relationship is threatened.”

But I think this misses the point–privacy isn’t a means to self-development but an essential feature of it. The instrumental argument seems to suggest that we could substitute some other condition forself development; but this just doesn’t seem to adequately capture what privacy is. Put another way, when someone asks why you don’t want them reading your mail, the instrumentalist would require you to say that doing so interferes with your self development, while the end-in-itself theorist will let you simply throw your hands up and say “it’s none of your damn business!”

I have to wonder if this distinction is why it makes it so easy to perform that lingustic bait-and-switch–no one seems to be arguing that privacy isn’t valuable at all, but if it can be framed as only instrumentally valuable then it becomes somehow cheaper.