Alan Westin
Shape of things to come

Alan Westin’s four states of privacy

In her post explaining her reasons for shutting down Groklaw, Pamela Jones excerpts a passage from a book by Janna Malamud Smith which in turn references Alan Westin’s four states of privacy, outlined in his 1967 book Privacy and Freedom:

Safe privacy is an important component of autonomy, freedom, and thus psychological well-being, in any society that values individuals. Summed up briefly, a statement of “how not to dehumanize people” might read: Don’t terrorize or humiliate. Don’t starve, freeze, exhaust. Don’t demean or impose degrading submission. Don’t force separation from loved ones. Don’t make demands in an incomprehensible language. Don’t refuse to listen closely. Don’t destroy privacy. Terrorists of all sorts destroy privacy both by corrupting it into secrecy and by using hostile surveillance to undo its useful sanctuary.

But if we describe a standard for treating people humanely, why does stripping privacy violate it? And what is privacy? In his landmark book, Privacy and Freedom, Alan Westin names four states of privacy: solitude, anonymity, reserve, and intimacy. The reasons for valuing privacy become more apparent as we explore these states.

The essence of solitude, and all privacy, is a sense of choice and control. You control who watches or learns about you. You choose to leave and return.

Intimacy is a private state because in it people relax their public front either physically or emotionally or, occasionally, both. They tell personal stories, exchange looks, or touch privately. They may ignore each other without offending. They may have sex. They may speak frankly using words they would not use in front of others, expressing ideas and feelings — positive or negative — that are unacceptable in public. (I don’t think I ever got over his death. She seems unable to stop lying to her mother. He looks flabby in those running shorts. I feel horny. In spite of everything, I still long to see them. I am so angry at you I could scream. That joke is disgusting, but it’s really funny.) Shielded from forced exposure, a person often feels more able to expose himself.

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