Privacy has a long history, and how people conceive of privacy continues to evolve in its focal points and interpretations as the context and concerns of its proponents change. Cultural norms, the political climate of the times, and the introduction of new technologies all shape our conception of privacy.

While privacy tends to be oversimplified and trivialized in common parlance (“I have nothing to hide”)—sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes in order to misdirect and mislead—privacy is, in reality, complex and multifaceted, and furthermore, doesn’t signify the same things for all people. In any case, it is useful to have a working definition that we can use as a reference point if we are to understand all of the issues at hand in our current context—the reasons we value privacy and the ways in which it is undermined.

We propose a broad definition of privacy as self-determination with respect to information, which we can further break down into three primary facets:1

1. Secrecy

Secrecy affords you the ability to express yourself selectively, for example, by limiting access to the contents of a letter to the intended recipients.

2. Anonymity

Anonymity allows you to act apart from your identity, for example, to attend a protest without registering yourself on a list of dissenters, or to read a book or watch a movie without that activity being tied to you.

3. Autonomy

Autonomy is freedom from interference by those watching or listening. Sometimes privacy is expressed as “the right to be let alone.”2 For example, censorship depends on surveillance to carry out (e.g., you cannot carry out Internet censorship without watching what everyone is doing online).

  1. The three facets of privacy are loosely based on a speech by Eben Moglen of the Software Freedom Law Center. 

  2. The Right to Privacy, 1890, Samuel D. Warren and Louis Brandeis. 

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