Privacy and the Library, Part III

This is the third part of a continuing series on privacy and libraries. Read part I and part II.

Urumqi, Xinjiang, China
“Urumqi city ZT plaza” by Ccyber5. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the greatest parts of attending one of the most international universities in the United States is that you can learn a lot about the “outside” world – if you only take the time to sit down for some (apparently very caffeinated) green tea and mooncakes (月饼).

In the brutal winter months last year, I met a fellow graduate student, Y.  She grew up in the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, and then worked for a few years in Shanghai before applying for graduate schools in the United States.  From our first meeting on, Y and I have gorged ourselves on frozen yogurt, exchanged television series recommendations, and swapped stories.

One of our discussions turned to the topic of privacy.  Seeing as I was already writing a series of posts on privacy, I decided that I would include her discussion of privacy in my series.  So, this post might not be completely relevant to libraries, but it does talk about privacy.

In her studies (she is not a librarian), Y came across a discussion of privacy.  The arguments in her field were that privacy, at its very origins, came from the desire to protect private property. (The East and the West developed different senses of the division between public and private, but both stemmed from a desire to protect private property.)  Thus, early in the history of privacy, only the elite would want or need privacy; the common people had little or no property to protect.  Only as more people began to accumulate property did an idea of “universal” privacy – or that everyone has a right to privacy – come into being.

I found this interesting.  And I wondered how this potential origin might affect current ideas of privacy.  Does our society value the privacy of the elite more than the “99%”?  How?  Celebrities’ lives are often scrutinized: they’re the subject of exposés; they’re followed by the paparazzi; they get their own reality shows with cameras following them everywhere.  What do they get to keep private that “the rest of us” don’t?  How is that experience different from, for example, mine?  My information habits are monitored constantly by large corporations like Google; little snippets of my thoughts are read by hundreds on Twitter; my cellphone tracks everywhere I’ve been.  Is the difference that I don’t live behind walls (in a gated community), or that I don’t have PR staff and lawyers to make my “scandals” disappear?

Then, to end on an even more interesting note: Y also noted a difference in privacy and secrecy.  Things that are truly private, she said, have nothing to do with the public.  Secrets, on the other hand, are a place where the public and private intersect.  She used an example that likely hits home for someone from the terror-ridden Xinjiang: a man carries a bomb in his briefcase onto a train.  What he carries on his person, in his briefcase, is very much a private matter.  (Who likes having their bags checked?)  And yet the public ought to know about the presence of the bomb – to stay safe, to avoid a tragedy.

Yes, when planning for a situation like this, citizens and policymakers have to decide how much intrusion on personal privacy is acceptable when trying to discover a deadly secret.

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