Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Morality of a World Without Privacy

Thanks to Greg for this post asking whether we should be concerned about the "surveillance state." His piece raises important questions about privacy and its importance in our civic lives. I would like to add to his list of concerns. I have written here and elsewhere that the threat to privacy is not only limited to the government. I would suggest that private companies' constant tracking of our data, and our compliance with it, is a potentially greater threat to our privacy than the government.

While privacy itself is surely not a uniquely Catholic issue, this dialog underscores a moral dimension to our societal decisions about the privacy regime we are creating. Thus far, it seems we have allowed our privacy to take a back seat to commercial forces, as we have accepted trading our privacy for convenience. Concomitant with this, we have a generation of children "living their lives online," according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project's report on Teens and Social Networking. These children share their names, schools, places they live, and interests in a very unregulated space and with limited guidance (either in public policy or model behavior from adults). While they are concerned about privacy in some contexts, they are relatively unconcerned with third party access to their data. The implications of this for their adult lives, the future ability of the state to monitor its citizens, and the ability of commercial entities to control their choices have yet to be realized.

While this may not seem to have moral implications, I offer an analogy. In the context of environmental concerns, many, including the Holy See, have reframed environmental questions as moral questions concerning the kind of planet we are leaving future generations by failing to consider the costs of our actions. Similarly, in the fiscal context many have questioned the morality of saddling our children with significant debt (whether personal or public). I would suggest that we should also begin asking: what kind of "digital climate" we are leaving our children. If it is a climate in which our children have no place free from institutional monitoring (governmental or commercial), that has implications for their freedom (including freedom of religion), personal and spiritual development, and personal growth which should be considered before the damage is irreversible.


Leary, Mary G. | Permalink


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I appreciate this discussion on how privacy protections raises moral concerns that can be examined thru a Catholic prism. For those interested, Prof. Anita Allen's "Unpopular Privacy" explains how privacy is a basic liberal (small 'l') democratic (small 'd') principle. The lines to draw might be hard, but as noted, both governmental and non-governmental invasions should be our concern. Just like whenever other moral principles arise.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 17, 2013 1:32:25 PM

Is this "potentially greater threat to our privacy than the government" fleshed out somewhere? I don't see it. At any point, we can be commercially left alone merely by not responding or not engaging. Non-governmental data collectors can't make us do anything and can't make us buy things we don't want. We have effective individual consent in the private sphere.

What might this "potentially greater threat" look like?

Posted by: David | Jun 21, 2013 1:01:19 AM

A link is provided though it is a video. The "effective individual consent" here is mixed at best, especially when it involves teenagers.

The segment deals with Google and related companies data mining for advertising purposes, but once they do that -- and "not engaging" would involve not using the Internet and/or carefully reading confidentiality agreement small print that few do -- just like the government, we are talking about them having loads of private data that can be misused if used by the wrong people. This would also include private companies having health data and so forth.

Thus, the importance of various governmental safeguards protecting the privacy of private data.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 21, 2013 9:39:19 AM