Sacrificing Claims to Privacy

According to leading American privacy researcher Alan F. Westin, the private sphere is a human right. However, a young and globally connected Internet generation attaches more value to freedom of communication than to the individual's right to privacy.

Interview: Peter Hossli

Alan F. Westin is Professor Emeritus of Public Law and Government at Columbia University, where he taught for 37 years. His considered the foremost expert on privacy and has advised many governments and companies around the world. Born in 1929, he earned his BA in political science from the University of Florida; his LL.B. from Harvard Law School.  He is the author or editor of 26 books.

Professor Westin, is Google the biggest threat to individual privacy?
Alan F. Westin: Google as such is no threat to privacy. Google is a driver of the benefits that we now see on the Internet. But we’re in the middle of working out what the new rules of privacy should be in a Google world.

What are the big issues that determine those new rules?
Westin: There is a dramatically new level of self-disclosure, especially among the young. There has never been a medium like the Internet that allowed people to communicate so freely with anywhere in the world. It makes people to put forward an enormous amount of information about them.

What makes people willing to share information with strangers on sites like Facebook or MySpace?
Westin: It’s generational. Today, young people are growing up very comfortable with a world of communication. Technology, not privacy shapes the way this generation thinks about communicating. Privacy experts keep warning that employers or law enforcement can look at what they’ve put up there. But right now, people are choosing communication as a benefit over privacy as a right.

Have new technologies generally benefited people’s privacy? Or have they undermined it?
Westin: It’s both. First technologies like wiretapping and big computers served organizations, but rarely individuals. With the arrival of the PC, and with the arrival of mobile phones, and then with the Internet, we have a shift. Technology empowered individuals, and gave them many privacy options with encryption.

What is privacy?
Westin: Often privacy is described as something very elusive. But it is not. Privacy means that each person has to decide for their own self how much they reveal, and to whom, and when. I describe four states of privacy: Solitude, intimacy, reserve, and anonymity.

How important is privacy to you personally?
Westin: To me, privacy is extremely important. I don’t have a profile on Facebook. I want to always be able to manage what I disclose about myself. That is the heart of privacy.

Why is it important for human beings to be able to choose what is being disclosed about them?
Westin: We all need downtime. We need to be out of sight and hearing of others in order to recapture ourselves, to be reflective, to manage our whole set of life choices. It would be extraordinarily harmful to individuals not to have solitude as a dimension of privacy. Then there is a close link between privacy and discrimination. Society decides what information it will use in order to decide what rights, and benefits, and opportunities we get, as consumers, as citizens, and as employees.

You started your research on privacy in the early 1950s. What kept you interested in the topic for over five decades?
Westin: Historically, every society that had a reputation for liberty had privacy protection. Challenging privacy, and threatening privacy, and overcoming privacy were always tools of authoritarian regimes. So privacy is part of the history of liberty, which is something that I’m profoundly interested in.

Your first book on the subject came out in 1967, shortly after the civil rights movement in the United States. A year later, Richard Nixon was elected U.S. president. How important was, or is, Nixon for privacy rights?
Westin: He is the Godfather of privacy. I used to gives speeches in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and I would talk about all the new issues of privacy. People would always says, “Yeah, but that’s all hypothetical. Who’s going to collect and use this information against anybody?” With Watergate, Nixon dramatized the issue of collecting and misusing information. Without Watergate, we never would’ve been able to pass the Privacy Act in 1974.

Watergate drove privacy legislation in the United States. What was the driver in Europe?
Westin: It was the Nazi/Fascist memory that drove first Sweden, and then Germany, and finally the EU to appreciate that privacy is a human right.

How do Europe and the United States differ in their approach to privacy rights?
Westin: The European tradition is much more geared to explicit rules and regulation. The United States has much more of a laissez-faire tradition. We say, “Show me the harm. If there’s no harm, let people do it”.

A part of your research is to study privacy rights of wealthy individuals. You stress that the rich and famous are enmeshed more and more in an all-persuasive data collection. Why is that?
Westin: It’s one of the paradoxes of privacy. At one level, when it comes to what people have to reveal in order to get government services, or in order to get commercial advantage, it’s the poor, and even the middle-classes that have to disclose things about themselves. The rich don’t typically have to worry about this. On the other hand, from the earliest times on, what the wealthy and the famous are doing is always of enormous interest. The rich and the powerful can build enclaves for themselves, private homes, and private communities, and private jets; but they are so much a target of the public’s desire to know what they’re doing, and how they spend their money, and what kind of hairdo they have, and so forth, that they are always the target.

What can the wealthy do to protect themselves?
Westin: They need to keep up with what’s being said about them, and what’s being shown about them. People now have services that track all that, and some of them give them a tool to reply.

There’s another struggle that the wealthy face, which is between an individual’s privacy, and the government’s interest to collect and share information on people’s finances. How do you resolve that struggle?
Westin: Ever since the middle ages in Venice, the wealthy were able to find ways to manage their money outside the official government systems. Private banking, and private fund exchanges have been tools of the wealthy going back to the early days of accounting and financial systems. And we still have the Swiss bank account, and the Cayman Islands accounts. So there are tools by which the wealthy can, to some extent, keep their transactions private.

But sometimes governments want to interfere.
Westin: The public has certain rights to know if money is being used in a way that impacts the economic system, security, and the political process. So we need to define what is legitimate to keep private. This has to be done on a case-by-case basis.

More and more governments want to share individuals’ information among each other. How can we protect the privacy rights in that case?
Westin: We don’t have a world government. We have nation-states. We have different traditions, and different legal systems, and different financial arrangements, country by country. Money moves globally, and there’s a desire to create a norm for sharing information between governments. Without trying to find a magic bullet, these often have to be on a case-by-case basis. In which the issue is, “For what purpose does a government want to know about the financial affairs of individuals in another nation-state?”

It mostly concerns tax issues. How do you solve the conflict between a government that doesn’t want to lose taxpayers, and an individual’s right to privacy?
Westin: Historically, taxes have always been one of the privacy-bearing issues. The government wants your money for taxes, and it will have the authority either of the dictator, or of the democracy, that the tax is legitimate, and it’s going to be used for the right purposes. Individuals have always felt, “That’s my money, I made it through my brains, and through my wits, and I should only have to give up the least that’s necessary.” That’s an enduring tension.

How do you resolve it?
Westin: Case by case. There seems to be a great economic and social advantage in having more fluid movements of money below the threshold of disclosure. But when it’s abused, when it’s felt that too much of these transactions are illegitimate, or that the government is not able to get what it needs in order to fulfill its governmental function, then it will move against it.

Is money the most sensitive information that people want to protect?
Westin: I’ve done many surveys over the last 40 years, and the two areas that are always the most sensitive are financial and health information. In many ways financial information is seen as revealing everything about you.

Why is privacy on health information important to us?
Westin: It is closely linked to discrimination. If my health status is known, then my employer may take actions against me. Insurance companies would use it to either deny me a policy, or to rate it very highly. In addition many health conditions are stigmatizing.

In what way has 9/11 changed privacy?
Westin: Dramatically. The struggle has been, how do we make the tradition of limits on government search apply to a world in which cell phone traffic, and Internet traffic, and money movement are used by terrorists. The public wants it both ways. They want the government to have the power to go after terrorists, but they also are very nervous about government monitoring e-mail traffic, and listening to telephone conversations. We need to find the right limits, and to put safeguards into place. We might have to give up some of our privacy rights to keep save.

What will be the big issues in privacy research in the next couple of years?
Westin: The Internet is and will be the big driver of privacy issues. We’re in need of education people as to how important it is that they set their privacy norms and rules when they use the Internet.