Privacy – what is it?

Bothered about the “big brother” knowing everything about you? We are explaining what exactly the privacy means in this data driven world, what are the different types, the major concerns and its limitation.

By Desmond Brennan.

Some thoughts on privacy


I avoid giving my personal political preferences, so this post is only about observations / options …rather than my personal opinions, though some leakage of my opinions is inevitable

Privacy – what is it ?

Privacy is a right that a large amount of quasi/constitutional texts are silent on. I am not sure that it is amenable to definition as a negative right as no person is an island, furthermore people choose to compromise their own privacy (including but not only for commercial advantage). I think privacy is thus best thought of as analogous to a property right – intellectual property rights seem sufficiently well defined to use as a basis for considering what privacy rights ought to be, though as this post isn’t about my opinions, I see no need to state my preferences.

Privacy from non state actors

Some people maintain different levels of interpersonal privacy:

  1. Self only
  2. Romantic life partner
  3. Family
  4. Etc

Similarly people vary the level of information they disclose to organisations, sometimes they trade information for other things (loans, free email, etc)

I think the best option for governing such arrangements is default contracts suggested by the State, with people able to explicitly opt for contracts of their choosing à la Thaler and Sunstein’s “Libertarian Paternalism

Privacy from state actors

I will confine this to liberal democracies, these are the factors that I see

  1. Public servants going rogue: a spook, or spooks, going rogue is a serious threat, they could compromise a wide array of actors via blackmail. Even quite a junior spook could squirrel away some compromising material on a promising person for some decades…and then bring the material into play when that person assumes power. Similarly quite a junior public servant working in a tax office, may get access to personally and commercially sensitive information. I think public bodies need to expose their information systems and controls to independent oversight/audit so the public can know how in/adequate safeguards are.
  2. People feeling oppressed due to surveillance : I think people over-estimate both (a) the efficacy of information collection and more importantly under-estimate (b) the effort needed to analyse it. I rather suspect that it still takes much much more than one person to effectively surveil just one person, so there is a hard limit to the over reach. That said though, spooks ought to release statistical information on both their surveillance of their own, and foreign nationals, in order that a quality public policy debate is held.
  3. Legal arbitrage : most liberal democracies have reasonably clear legal guidelines on how then can surveil their own citizens … but not so how they surveil other nation’s citizens. Thus it is not unknown for say Country X, to reach out to Country Y…and ask Y to spy on citizens of X. I think a supra national framework ought to be explored here in order that clarity on rights be attained


Having had access to various information sources over the years, I don’t think any actors have anything like the omniscience as portrayed in the press, furthermore I subscribe to a position analogous to the New Mysterianism , my position being that anything even approaching total surveillance is impossible, and will remain impossible for all time. Call it “Brennan’s 42nd Law of Spookodynamics” if you will. Also on the commercial side of the house, people have seemed quite willing to trade privacy for advantage, and certain politicians who weren’t involved in the value creation of digital services, and don’t seem well grounded in how they work, appear to have joined a bandwagon promising things like the below:

That said, certain organisations, such as the EFF, do actually understand what they propose, and whilst you may not agree with them, they have earned a seat at the high table of privacy policy determination