GULYÁS, Gábor György, Ph.D.

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Definition of privacy as a question of boundary control

2016-09-21 | Gabor

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Unless we explain in paraboles what privacy is, the term is just too abstract for most people. I think this is reasonable; however, as I talk with my colleagues, I get to think that the more you work with privacy, the harder you will find defining it. But is it reall that hard?

What is privacy?

I think we can still get to a lifelike definition of privacy. To get to the core question, let’s start with a quote from Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez:

All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.

It gives rightaway an answer what privacy is: the fine-grained control between our public and secret lives. This is the part of your life where you would like to have control over what you disclose. Agreengly, this is how I would define privacy:

Privacy is having [a fine grained] control over any peice of [direct or indirect] information that concerns you.

Thus if you have no control, you have no privacy; or just until your needs are respected by third parties. This is what makes the unbelievable technical breakthroughs of our age also worrisome: we are loosing the control with them, bit by bit, and we cannot hope to count upon the self-control of data-hungry companies and governments.

Unconscious role-based access control at the grocery shop

How does the private part of our lives look like? We have several roles and identities in our lives, and we behave and share information accordingly. We share different information with our bosses, family and friends. We share different parts of our lives in the bank, at the doctor or at a meeting. These are the roles and partial identities we use in our everyday lives.

Partial identities are overlapping snippets of our identity.

Partial identities are overlapping snippets of our identity. [source]

This is usually neglected in the digital world, thus some initiatives try to give back this perspective to users. This was already in the focus point of the Prime Project in 2008, and also the same need led to the invention of the Circles feature in Google+.

It is fairly easy to map the starting quote to partial identities. We have partial identities that are public, while some might only be shared with a very few people, or perhaps no one. Private ones are shared with some groups or people we relate through roles; however, access to these partial identities is limited for the most people we meet.

Privacy is boundary control

This makes privacy a question of boundary control: how we manage the access-control of our partial identities with our acquaintances. This limits information access about us. If we can control who can cross the boundaries between our partial identities, we have privacy, otherwise we probably don’t.

If you think about privacy as this, it becomes fairly easy to capture privacy breaches. If a tracker on a website observes your shopping habits, it may be able to figure out your income, age, sex. This information was practically leaked from some of your partial identities without having proper access – a privacy and boundary breach occured at the same time.

I think this is an interesting view to look at privacy. It also helps emphasizing how important privacy is. Loosing boundary control is essentially loosing overall control; and that’s a huge problem all the time.


Anyway, as a bottom line, here is a nice list how to protect your privacy.

Tags: privacy, definition, boundary, control

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