Short note on Solove’s ‘Nothing to Hide’

Some ear­ly thoughts on data and pri­va­cy, think­ing with Solove’s Noth­ing to Hide:
Ear­ly on in his 2011 book, Noth­ing to Hide, Daniel Solove makes a provoca­tive claim. He writes:
“Legal and pol­i­cy solu­tions focus too much on the prob­lems under the Orwellian metaphor—those of surveillance—and aren’t ade­quate­ly address­ing the Kafkaesque problems—those of infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing” p.26
Solove’s point here is that much of the legal wran­glings and pol­i­cy mak­ing sur­round­ing pri­va­cy are based on the premise that peo­ple have some­thing to hide. Thus the aims have, by and large, been tied to secur­ing pro­tec­tions against surveillance—operating with­in the rubric of an “Orwellian metaphor”.
The broad­er argu­ment Solove makes is that this treat­ment of pri­va­cy is miss­ing the prover­bial trick.  As a con­cept, pri­va­cy doesn’t sim­ply entail peo­ple want­i­ng to hide things. For starters, accord­ing to Solove, “[m]any peo­ple don’t care about con­ceal­ing the hotels they stay at, the cars they own, or the kind of bev­er­ages they drink.” p.25 “[M]uch of the data gath­ered in com­put­er data­bas­es isn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive, such as one’s race, birth date, gen­der, address, or mar­i­tal sta­tus.” P.25
It isn’t so much the gath­er­ing of infor­ma­tion that mat­ters, Solove con­tends. It’s what agen­cies like gov­ern­ments are doing with it—the “infor­ma­tion processing”—that counts. The allu­sion is to a Kafkaesque world in which the rela­tions between agen­cies and indi­vid­u­als are man­aged and con­trolled through the analy­sis of infor­ma­tion or data. The pow­er, so to speak, is held by those who can both access the data and sub­ject it to sophis­ti­cat­ed analy­sis. I take this use of infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing to be anal­o­gous to big data ana­lyt­ics and cer­tain­ly most of the exam­ples Solve refers to sup­port this.
I don’t know what Solove’s sources are for sug­gest­ing “most peo­ple” don’t care about the con­tent of the infor­ma­tion being gath­ered about them (this recent Guardian arti­cle appears to con­firm this). I do get his broad­er point though. Cer­tain­ly, it’s lim­it­ing to see pri­va­cy as exclu­sive­ly based on the premise that peo­ple have some­thing to hide. More­over, the pos­si­bil­i­ties big data ana­lyt­ics open up for dis­cov­er­ing some pret­ty per­son­al things about peo­ple do seem daunt­ing, if per­haps over-hyped.
Yet, with­out want­i­ng to dis­count Solove’s argu­ment, I want to pro­pose a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about this issue of infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing. Seen from the ground up, we might also start to ask what peo­ple them­selves want to say through their data and using ana­lyt­ics. When Solove writes about “most peo­ple” I think we need to begin think­ing about what this actu­al means and if there are ways of mak­ing claims like this action­able. So, a counter to the “noth­ing to hide argu­ment” could be that most people—given the knowl­edge and tools—have “some­thing to say”. That is they may want to have some say over how their infor­ma­tion is dis­trib­uted, aggre­gat­ed, analysed and inter­pret­ed and, ulti­mate­ly, how it is pro­duc­tive­ly put to work. This cer­tain­ly won’t solve the mul­ti­ple prob­lems sur­round­ing pri­va­cy, but it may at least redis­trib­ute the pow­er and, in the process, give peo­ple some new ways of express­ing themselves.
Oh, and as it hap­pens, this ques­tion of how to enable peo­ple to have some sort of say and con­trol over what gets done with their infor­ma­tion is one of the moti­va­tions for the new project we’re ramp­ing up in my group at Microsoft Research.
* A thank you to Jes­sa Lin­gel for point­ing me to the first quote above from Solove.

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