privacy and philosophy, part 1



Privacy is important. This is something that I believe the majority of readers of this post will agree upon, considering my audience is mostly composed of people who work or are interested in the cryptocurrency and blockchain sector. But why? If you search for articles about privacy and cryptocurrencies, you will get plenty of hits for writings about the technical side of privacy and “privacy-coins”, but precious little about the reasons why privacy is so important. Most of the arguments are repeats and quotes of (good) texts from the nineties and early 2000s, but there is little in-depth information about the philosophy of privacy and why it matters.

In this article, I am going to fill a few of the gaps from a philosophical standpoint.

Privacy can be defined as the opposite of public, which immediately puts it in the sphere of public, or rather political philosophy. Where does privacy begin and end is a political question, both in terms of how far the public sphere can encroach on your private sphere, as well as what the consequences of encroachment can be.

This same definition can also be used to put it in a social philosophical context, where public life is distinct from your private life. This is distinct from a political context, where we are talking more about state vs. individual. In social philosophy, we are also talking about family units vs. the larger society and rights of people amongst themselves.

Think of political philosophy as looking at vertical relationships, where social philosophy looks at horizontal relationships. The lines are blurry, as they can overlap, but it’s a useful distinction.

Bear with me here: philosophy as I see it has real-world implications and is not dry or boring. Philosophy is asking questions and then asking more questions. Of course, the answers to those questions can then be used to push people into action, even though the process of questioning will go on indefinitely.

I want to conclude this introduction by observing that privacy as a philosophical topic has grown immensely over the last decades. The prime reason for this is that with the advent of digital networks and the capability of obtaining and storing huge amounts of private information, it has quickly become a completely different issue than it was before. Before the internet age, it simply was much less of an issue as obtaining this data would have been much more time-consuming and hard. The issues we face now are new and of an unprecedented scale, which makes it all the more urgent that we think of them with current knowledge and models instead of applying old models indiscriminately to our present situation.


The next part of this article draws heavily on Jeffrey Reiman’s 1995 article “Driving to the Panopticon“. I paraphrase parts that I feel give a good overview of the questions, to which I add some thoughts of my own. I invite you to read the article itself, as it’s a good primer.

Let’s first look at what we actually mean when we talk about privacy. Reiman states there are roughly two schools of thought about this. The first describes privacy as “the condition in which others are deprived of access to you”. The second describes privacy as “having control over who has access to you”.

There has been quite a lot of wrangling over these definitions. For me, the second one always felt like the best. I think privacy is, in essence, a social phenomenon, which has no meaning outside a social context. When there are no other people around, privacy is meaningless, but once even one person is available, it becomes meaningful, for both. The first definition would mean you could claim that someone has privacy on the top of an inaccessible mountain top. I think that in such a situation, apart from the more immediate problems you would have, you cannot claim to have privacy in any meaningful sense.

I want to propose to keep both definitions, but for different purposes. The first definition offered above serves perfectly well as a prerequisite for the second. The first definition describes a right, the second is the concrete consequence of that right. The second definition describes exercising the first.

If we accept the second definition, privacy can become a concept that leads to many more practical considerations, like “how do we control access to ourselves?” and “are there circumstances where this control needs to be relinquished?” or “what does it mean if I lose control over access to me?”. These are questions that we need to concern ourselves with if we discuss privacy in more than just a colloquial sense.

The second definition also means we have to accept another conclusion: privacy is social. “A cypherpunk manifesto” by Eric Hughes alludes to this, too, in its last paragraph:

For privacy to be widespread it must be part of a social contract. People must come and together deploy these systems for the common good. Privacy only extends so far as the cooperation of one’s fellows in society. 

If privacy is social, then we cannot only solve the issue of privacy by technological means. We can see one example in this when people put their social media accounts on private, but some of their trusted followers screenshot their posts and share them under aliases. Another example would be when you do not want your movements to be tracked, so you decide to ditch your mobile. However, if you are travelling with, for instance, your family and all of them do carry mobiles, it is very easy to infer your movements from their data.


In this article, I have tried to give a very basic overview of privacy, and two ways of thinking about it. I have shown the concept of privacy belongs to both political as well as the social philosophy. I have also given two definitions of privacy that are commonly used and chosen the one I consider to be the most useful when needing answers to concrete questions. I have also argued that privacy issues cannot, by nature, be an issue that is solved by technological means alone.

next up

In the next articles about privacy, I intend to cover privacy issues more in-depth, but I wanted to do some groundwork so we have something to refer back to. I will be covering how privacy is important in society, what the consequences of a loss of privacy are and what questions we should get used to asking.

Especially software developers take center stage as actors in whether we keep or lose privacy need to be aware they have a unique responsibility in this discussion. They shape the tools we interact with. The more they are able to form informed opinions on the effects of the tools they are building, the better it will be.

Bas Wisselink
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