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The Relationship Between Privacy and Secrecy


The relationship between privacy and secrecy is more complex than we realize. In fact, secrecy may have a well-deserved place in the discussion of our right to privacy.

Secrecy suffers from a negative connotation, one in which information is distributed and used (or abused) by a select group or institution. Yet secrecy is not the shadow side of privacy, despite what proponents of the “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about” argument have said for years to undermine privacy rights. Information kept secret is not inherently amoral or antisocial simply because its audience is limited in scope.

Historian and writer Jill Lepore opens up a more refined perspective on the relationship between privacy and secrecy when she writes in The New Yorker magazine : “Secrecy is what is known, but not to everyone. Privacy is what allows us to keep what we know to ourselves.”

Through Lepore’s definitions we may better illuminate the legitimate uses of secrecy and the right we have to keep those secrets private.

Historical Perspectives on Privacy & Secrecy

Have families always had secrets and a right to keep them? Or is our desire for privacy an outmoded byproduct of urbanization? It depends on who you talk to, though it is perhaps unsurprising that representatives from some of the largest aggregators of information on the planet believe that privacy may be an anomaly. Omer Tene, Vice President of Research and Education at the IAPP, responding to this assertion from Google’s Vint Cerf that our migration from villages to urban centers could have unintentionally given rise to anonymity, provides a deep historical and biological evidence for privacy’s role in “the development of human individuality, intimacy and free will.”

Tene’s concern is that these arguments for a natural, post-privacy world will have profound and potentially damaging decisions by business and government. He notes in his article how

“persistent invasions of privacy breed fear, discipline and conformity,”
and “Totalitarian regimes implement this learning, deploying mass surveillance to stifle free speech, religious freedoms and political affiliation.”

Doubtless there is little end to combing history for pro-privacy or anti-secret anecdotes. But there are instances today where the right to keep a secret is a good thing we should consider more deeply.

Family Secrets & Kids’ Privacy

If, by Lepore’s definition, a secret is “what is known, but not to everyone,” then a family is certainly a unit where secrets can and should be protected in the name of privacy. This is even more true in the age of social media.

In an article for The Christian Science Monitor, “Take it from a parent, ask your kids before you post to Facebook,” Alexandra Samuel details her own journey balancing the urge to share her love of her children with her kids’ right to privacy. Her journey helped her understand the need to model sharing behavior which respected privacy and recognized what sort of information should remain “secret” to the family alone. The result was a family social media policy. From her example:

1. All conversations, activities, and events in our home shall be treated as confidential.

2. Confidentiality may be waived by any member of the household upon explicit request. Do not post, tweet, Facebook or otherwise share any images or activities of family members without their consent. This applies to both parents and kids.

3. We must respect the wishes of our family and friends regarding the confidentiality of our social engagements and conversations (no matter how cute they are).

What’s kept “secret” within the family in this case is no dark shame. It’s a shared recognition of what is appropriate within the intimate bounds of the family, but not intended for friends, acquaintances, or strangers at-large.

Of course, you may view your right to post your kid’s pictures on social media as your own, not subject to their desires. They may not be able to stop you, but keep in mind that one day your child might well sue you for violation of their privacy.

Privacy & Secrecy in the Public Interest

Where does the right to privacy and the public interest intersect? One recent example is the health records of 2016 U.S. Presidential race candidates. Given the position of power and the demands of the job, how much information should the electorate have when it comes to candidates?

While leaders have often gone to lengths to keep secrets about their health from the public, especially in times of war, some argue that we should have greater access to candidates’ health records in order to vet their sufficiency for the job just as we might fighter pilots. Yet even heads of state should have the right to privacy, and therefore degrees of secrecy appropriate to the position.

Setting the Scope of Your Privacy

There are efforts underway to help us make choices about what we share and how we share it. Should we choose to share a secret with someone, be it a company or the government, we need to know they’ll keep it.

Two such tools are in development at Carnegie Mellon University. Dubbed The Usable Privacy Policy Project and the Personalized Privacy Assistant Project, “Carnegie Mellon University has found that a combination of natural language processing, privacy preference modeling, machine language, crowdsourcing and privacy interface design may make the impossible possible,” according to this article by Thor Olavsrud for CIO.

What do you choose to keep secret or private? How do you feel about the possibility of living in a world of radical, universal transparency? In my view, complexity is not a reason to abandon privacy. There is a place for secrecy, discretion and privacy in our future.

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