Privacy as a Common Good in the Age of Big Data

by Josie Roux and Fabio Tollon

Do we need to rethink the role (or conception) of privacy in a highly digitised world? The widespread collection of online user data has generated substantial interest in the various ways in which our right to privacy has been violated. Additionally, worries about our privacy being undermined are also linked to the coercive or manipulative power that digital technologies have over our lives. The concern, then, is that the widespread gathering and use of massive amounts of private information by Big Data barons might undermine individual autonomy. Moreover, if we consider that citizen autonomy is a crucial element of democracy, it becomes clear that the problem of privacy invasions of widespread data collection goes beyond its effect on individual users.

Here we would like to suggest that this situation demands that we reassess the way that we value privacy in liberal democracies.  Traditionally, privacy has been valued as an individual good; it is valued instrumentally for the individual goods it protects such as intimacy, creativity, self-expression, and personhood. In general, privacy is viewed as a right afforded to individuals that protects them from incursions from society. However, if we value privacy for its essential role in the protection of democracy, then it becomes clear that privacy is not only important for individuals but for society as a whole, and is not just an individual good but a common good.

Big Data is a technique that describes the gathering, processing, and analysing of massive volumes of digital data produced by people on social media platforms, websites, and smart devices. It is exceptionally good at generating patterns of human behaviour, and then using those patterns to direct behaviour in ways that are desirable from the perspective of the owner of the software. By collecting more information, such pattern recognition can become ever more successful, and the more fine-grained the data, the better the predictive success of the model at altering behaviour. So, it is easy to see how further privacy incursions are incentivised, as the closer you can get to people, the more you can know about them.

With the information on our decision-making vulnerabilities and biases that the Big Data barons, such as Meta (Facebook) and Google, garner through privacy-invasions, they are able to be highly manipulative and undermine our autonomy. Autonomy, generally speaking, is the capacity for self-determination. Autonomous individuals are governed by their own principles, desires, values, goals, and characteristics, rather than those of external forces. Their actions and decisions arise from independent deliberation, free from manipulative influences. Big Data techniques provide the ability to influence our decision-making which affects our capacity to act and choose autonomously.

Some of the main ways that companies like Meta and Google manipulate users’ decision-making processes is through tailoring and personalisation. Using the detailed information that Big Data collects on users, companies can use algorithms to tailor their services and products to each individual customer. This means that different users see, for example, different search results, different kinds of ads to different products, and different recommendations to videos on YouTube or movies on Netflix. This filtering, tailoring and personalisation of content creates a kind of ‘filter bubble’. We are deceived into believing that the content we consume is objective and true but, in reality, the information that we are allowed to access in our individual filter bubbles is biased in a way that benefits corporate interests. This erodes user autonomy by manipulating users’ ability to make informed decisions that aren’t subject to malign external influence.

The sinister dangers of Big Data barons’ ability to manipulate go far beyond targeted advertising, however. If companies can use people’s decision-making vulnerabilities to influence their buying habits, then there is little stopping political campaigners from using information on those same decision-making vulnerabilities to gerrymander elections. And this has already happened. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is the most infamous case of this kind of political manipulation. In 2018, whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, revealed that Facebook invaded the privacy of over 87 million users by providing the data firm Cambridge Analytica with access to their data. Cambridge Analytica used this data to undergo psychographic profiling of these individuals to formulate highly personalised political advertising campaigns. Donald Trump’s political campaign and the Brexit ‘Leave’ campaign both made use of this service to identify citizens who could be manipulated into either voting for their campaigns or who could be manipulated into not voting for the opponent. With stolen information on their individual fears, desires, biases, and weaknesses, Cambridge Analytica could leverage these decision-making weaknesses to micro-target individuals with manipulative political content. Political propaganda is, of course, nothing new. But political propaganda pre-Big Data did not have the ability to micro-target potential voters, i.e., to present specific information to citizens with specific political orientations. Without the theft of private information, it would not be possible to know who to manipulate with what information and so micro-targeted political propaganda would not be possible either.

Democracy presupposes that the citizens who make up the demos are autonomous. If democracy is collective self-determination, then the individual citizens who make up the collective should themselves be self-determining. Each citizen must vote according to beliefs that they have arrived at independently without manipulative external influences affecting her decision-making process. Members of a deliberative democracy must be able to recognise each other as having sufficient deliberative capacities to partake in the process of collective self-governance, and autonomy is crucial to this capacity. With its unique ability to undermine citizens’ autonomy, the likes of Meta and Google pose a great threat to democracy.

Moreover, even if these Big Data barons did not use their arsenal of private information for manipulative purposes, the very fact that they can is cause for concern; we should not have to rely on the benevolence of private companies to safeguard our democracies.

When we view privacy as an integral part of a healthy democracy, it becomes clear that privacy is an important common good.  A common good, in political philosophy, helps us to articulate the relationship between ‘public life’ and ‘private life’. The common good according to Rawls, for example, refers to “the sum total of social conditions that answer to the interests attached to the position of equal citizenship” including goods such as “the liberty of conscience”, “a democratic system of government that provides citizens with political liberties”, and “police protection and national defence”. Other widely accepted examples of common goods are national security, public health, and the protection of the environment.

Hussain contends that the common good “consists of the facilities and interests that members have a special obligation to care about in virtue of the fact that they stand in a certain relationship with one another”. And not only are we required to care about them, for the most part we do all care about them. They are a “special class of interests that all citizens have in common”; “they are ‘common’ in the sense that every citizen is understood to have these interests to a similar degree”. This does not mean that we all care about them to the same extent, but it is broadly understood that common goods are goods that are important to us all because they serve to protect the kind of society that we want to live in.

In a democratic society, we want people to have the qualities necessary to uphold that democratic society. We value these qualities as common goods—it is not just good for the individual to possess that quality, it is good for their fellow citizens if individuals in general possess that quality. One of these crucial values is privacy because, as philosopher Priscilla Regan aptly puts it, privacy is integral for the development of the “type of individual that forms the basis for the contours of society that we share in common”. The type of individual needed to uphold a democratic society is an autonomous individual, making autonomy an important common good in as far as democracy is a common good. Seen as a common good, it is clear that privacy harms will occur to the detriment of society, not just the individual. If privacy is valued as a common good, important for the protection of democracy, the scales will no longer be perpetually tipped against it.

Reframing privacy as a common good is helpful for countering many of the arguments most frequently made against the protection of privacy. The central benefit to this reframing is that privacy will not be undervalued as an individual good when weighed up against other goods that are valued for their contribution to society at large. Security is the most obvious example of this — appeals to a need for greater security post-9/11 has been a crucial justification for the proliferation of Big Data and its accompanying privacy-invading practices. But if we value privacy for its role in the protection of democracy, it will no longer automatically lose out when weighed against security.

It also reveals the flaw in ‘I have nothing to hide’ arguments against privacy-protection. Valuing privacy as a common good means that your privacy is not just yours to give up. Protecting your own privacy is important not just because it protects you as an individual but because it protects the kind of society that is important for everyone. So even if you feel that you have nothing to hide, the protection of your privacy still matters.

The point is that when we reconsider privacy as a common good, it brings into sharper focus why we ought to value it so highly, even if we have nothing to hide. The protection of our right to privacy not only safeguards us as individuals but protects our social systems and our democratic institutions. Privacy is not just about you and me, it is about us.