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Philosopher Michael Lynch Says Privacy Violations Are An Affront To Human Dignity
Evan Selinger   Oct 24, 2014  

Michael Lynch, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut, was the latest guest-speaker in my Technology, Privacy, and Law class. I asked Lynch to appear so that he could explain why he argues, in places like his amicus curiae brief for ACLU v. Clapper and articles in The New York Times, that some privacy violations are so harmful they’re an “affront to human dignity.” Students, of course, are free to accept or reject this this view. Either way, it’s complex.

Before getting into Lynch’s position, you should know something about his career. Philosophy is a field that’s filled with specialists, and Lynch developed a stellar reputation for work on fundamental problems in metaphysics, logic, and epistemology in books like True to Life: Why Truth Matters, Truth as One and Many, and In Praise of Reason: Why Rationality Matters for Democracy. But after Edward Snowden’s stunning revelation Lynch was galvanized to start thinking seriously about privacy and writing about the consequences of living in a world where digital technology minimizes the ease by which interested parties can learn an awful lot about us—sometimes with folks having no clue as to what types of surveillance are occurring.

Partly due to conversations with Peter Catapano, the New York Times Opinion Editor, and partly due to a sense that journalists and activists were getting drawn into issues like how much personal information can be revealed through analysis of meta-data, and what kind of requirements the government should satisfy in order to engage in sweeping meta-data collection, Lynch thought something essential was being left out of the national conversation: the intrinsic values violations of privacy can harm.

Although intrinsic value defenses of privacy aren’t new to the world of philosophy— Daniel Solove’s seminal text, Understanding Privacy, lists several thinkers who provide “nonconsequentialist accounts of privacy’s value”—it’s hard to make a case that privacy violations can be wrong in and of themselves, full stop, regardless of how someone, some company, or some institution uses our personal information. Indeed, the easiest type of privacy harm to wrap our heads around involves situations where bad things happen because someone gathered or shared information about us.

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Evan Selinger is Associate Professor of Philosophy and MAGIC Center Head of Research Communications, Community & Ethics, both at Rochester Institute of Technology. Evan publishes extensively in the areas of philosophy of technology, privacy, and ethics/policy of science and technology. To enhance public debate about ethics, Evan regularly supplements his peer-reviewed scholarship with outreach articles in places like The AtlanticWiredSlateForbes,The Wall Street Journal, and The Nation.


“While privacy has long been considered a fundamental right, it has never been an inherent right. Indeed, for all of human history, until the modern era, life was lived more or less publicly, as befits the most social species on Earth. As late as the sixteenth century, if an individual was to wander alone aimlessly for long
periods of time in daylight, or hide away at night, he or she was likely to be regarded as possessed. In virtually every society that we know of before the modern era, people bathed together in public, often urinated and defecated in public, ate at communal tables, frequently engaged in sexual intimacy in public, and slept huddled together en masse. It wasn’t until the early capitalist era that people began to retreat behind locked doors. The bourgeois life was a private affair. Although people took on a public persona, much of their daily lives were pursued in cloistered spaces. At home, life was further isolated into separate rooms, each with their own function—parlors, music rooms, libraries, etc. Individuals even began to sleep alone in separate beds and bedrooms for the very first time. The enclosure and privatization of human life went hand-in-hand with the enclosure and privatization of the commons. In the new world of private property relations, where everything was reduced to “mine” versus “thine,” the notion of the autonomous agent, surrounded by his or her possessions and fenced off from the rest of the world, took on a life of its own. The right to privacy came to be the right to exclude. The notion that every man’s home is his castle accompanied the privatization of life. Successive generations came to think of privacy as an inherent human quality endowed by nature rather than a mere social convention fitting a particular moment in the human journey.” -The Zero Marginal Cost Society

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