Privacy in the Age of Bigger Brother

N Ben Fairweather


This paper re-examines the nature of privacy in an age when technology is having fast-moving effects on levels of privacy. The pitfall of conflating the question of the appropriate extent of privacy with the question of what the concept means is highlighted. Drawing on the logical distinction be-tween associative privacy and informational privacy, it is concluded that it is not appropriate to talk about privacy as a property that is either present or absent tout court. Rather, privacy is a matter of degree, with the amount of privacy being determined in large part by how many people and organisations know things about the individual. The paper looks at the relationship between twenty-first century technology and surveillance. The technological limits of the twentieth century are shown to have made many inappropriate invasions of privacy difficult (but not impossible). Twentieth century technology caused surveillance to be limited by the ability of humans to process the data generated. In the twenty first cen-tury, information and communications technologies (ICTs) have enabled the processing of data to be automated, breaking the twentieth century limit on surveillance, and making some kinds of surveillance much easier even than for Orwell’s fictional Big Brother. Now the resources dedi-cated to the collection of privacy-relevant data can be much reduced, while the capacity to process such data is much increased. In a sense we have entered an age of Bigger Brother. However, the increased collection of data and processing capacity do not necessarily mean a reduction in privacy. The paper concludes that there is hope for privacy protection between when data is processed according to the purposes for which it was collected, and when any possible information resulting from the col-lection of the data might be revealed to recipients who might infringe privacy in an unacceptable way.