Posner on Privacy: A privileged old white wealthy man’s view

Judge Richard Posner’s (quoted by PC World) during a conference privacy and cybercrime has said some very sad things about privacy. First off he says “I think privacy is actually overvalued,”

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“Much of what passes for the name of privacy is really just trying to conceal the disreputable parts of your conduct,” Posner added. “Privacy is mainly about trying to improve your social and business opportunities by concealing the sorts of bad activities that would cause other people not to want to deal with you.”

This is a very narrow minded and underdeveloped view of privacy. It reflects the Judge’s privileged social, economic and political position.

Privacy – like other social protection – is supposed to protect the weak. In the same way that Free Speech is not necessary to protect those who politely parrot the status quo and consumer protection is not there to protect the corporation against the consumer. Privacy is there to protect those who are in a weaker position, or those who risk physical, social, political, or economic harm.

Even though homosexuality is no longer illegal in most countries, it does, in some cases, still carries social stigma, and even physical harm (see gay bashing). Therefore, someone who faces threats of physical harm and social discrimination may want to keep their sexuality private in certain situations. Posner cannot mean that they are then concealing disreputable parts of their conduct.

This kind of argument would apply to most persecuted minorities in history. Would anyone argue that hiding a Jewish identity in countries occupied by Nazi’s in WWII is “trying to conceal the disreputable parts of your conduct”?

The ability to ignore weakness stems from the privilege of not being weak. Not seeing the injustice that is around is comes from the perspective of those who are not subjected to the harmful effects of lack of privilege. As a white, over-educated, economically sound, male in Western society Posner has no need of these protections. They do not protect him or his. However, it is short-sighted at best to therefore argue that privacy is overvalued.

Society needs to protect its minorities. But by shifting the blame onto them, and attempting to blame the victim Posner is acting as an instrument of social repression. Privacy is not about hiding, it is about being able to create a fair society where all can participate as equals.

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