Distributing Privacy: Risks, Protection and Policy

Charles D. Raab and Colin. J. Bennett


This article discusses a relatively neglected topic in the study of information privacy and data protection: the social distribution of the privacy risks faced by individuals, and the ability of laws and practices of data protection systems to ameliorate these differentials and thus to promote equality in the distribution of privacy. Whilst threats to information privacy gain in importance as an issue in the development of an ‘information society’, there is little detailed knowledge about variations in the patterning of privacy across society, and public policy is therefore less precisely focused than it could be.

To the extent that an examination of the distribution of privacy risks and protections might identify particularly vulnerable social groups, their privacy might be enhanced by clearer knowledge amongst their representative pressure groups, adding strength to the activities of general civil liberties groups or privacy advocates, and affecting the political processes through which privacy protection is arbitrated. A perennial difficulty for privacy advocates and organisations such as ‘Privacy International’ is the need to build a coalition on the very disparate issues to which new surveillance practices give rise. However, there are many conceptual and empirical difficulties in gaining a purchase on the topic. Not least is the problem of understanding and evaluating risk.

The present article explores further some issues that were broached earlier (Raab, 1995). Portions of that discussion are first restated and elaborated. Next, the article explains and criticises the invisibility of equity issues in data protection, and explores the image of the ‘data subject’ with a view to its reconceptualisation. In order to gain a closer purchase on the question of distribution, illustrations are cited from the growing body of survey research on privacy which casts light on public attitudes towards, and knowledge of, privacy risks and privacy protection. The article then looks at the question of risk in order to seek further points of orientation for grasping the main issues, but reaches no optimistic conclusion about the possibility of a ‘scientific’ determination of privacy risks that is independent of subjective perceptions.