The conflict between transparency and privacy in an online world

11. February 2009 – 11:36 by Bengt Feil

On first glance both transparency of political processes and the privacy of the individual citizen are valuable goods and should be achieved alongside each other. The technologies of new media can help to advance both of these goals: Government data can be provided in a structured way to increase transparency and citizens can protest against oppressive regimes and reduce the danger of getting prosecuted by using online communication tools. But the advancements in one of the two fields can also drastically harm the other – increased transparency can diminish privacy and vice versa.

To illustrate this I would like to point out one example. The campaigns for and against the unfortunately passed Proposition 8, banning same sex marriage in the State of California, were fuelled by a large number of donors giving just a few to tens of thousands dollars to both campaigns. As a means to improve transparency of such processes the list of donors for and against the proposition are publicized in a machine readable way on a government website. With this data and the many open and free services available on the web it is easy to setup the website which shows all persons donating for the proposition and therefore against same sex marriage with their name, address, employer, position and the sum they contributed on which date. This could be seen as an attack on the privacy of those persons and not surprisingly many those, whose data is exposed on in such an accessible way, are not too happy about it.

At this point the question is what we can do if two of the most important concepts of a free and open society are in conflict with each other. One way of copping with the situation would be to follow David Brin who argues that we do not have to be too concerned about the loss of privacy as long as transparency goes in all directions and nobody is except from it. Even for the political sphere (let alone the commercial) this approach seems to be unrealistic - What would this perfect transparency be and why should all individuals be able to agree on favouring transparency over privacy in Brins “happy panopticon”? From my point of view we will have to find a balance between both goals – the right to privacy and the need for transparency in a democracy, but we also have to keep in mind that we participate in the political process as citizens who do not only bear rights but also responsibilities.

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  1. One Response to “The conflict between transparency and privacy in an online world”

  2. By Simon Smith on Feb 13, 2009

    I don’t like the idea of the happy panopticon either - such a situation would surely only amplify voices that are already well-heard and supress voices of the marginalised and vulnerable.
    The conflict you draw attention to reminds me of the dilemma confronted by Sunstein in his article, The Law of Group Polarization: how do you ensure that deliberation can take place in safe, ‘private’ spaces (which is crucial to protect potentially vulnerable participants, but also to allow experimentation and the development of ideas) without creating enclaves that don’t communicate with one another? His suggestion is for a system of group representation: each enclave has a representative in a more public - more transparent - part of the public sphere, which ensures that the group’s views get publicised, and its members are exposed to other views, albeit through an intermediary.
    I think handling the transparency-privacy tension in general requires such a layering of information flows. Maximum transparency should apply at the level of groups, organisations - aggregates. It would also often be necessary to retain an audit trail to individuals to ensure legal accountability, but I’m not in favour of making that infomration public in most situations.

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