Privacy in the information age: stakeholders, interests and values

Lucas Introna and Nancy Pouloudi


Respect of privacy is one of the primary concerns for ethical computing. However, privacy is not a straightforward concept; it can be interpreted from many different perspectives. One reason for this is that privacy is a relational and a relative concept. Often, there is a thin line between the need to disclose information for the benefit of some individuals and the need to safeguard the privacy of some individuals by not disclosing this information.

In this paper we offer a systematic discussion of potentially different notions of privacy. To this end, we put forward a framework that explores the interrelations of interests and values for various stakeholders where privacy concerns have risen or are expected to rise. We argue that conflicts between the interests and values of an individual as well as conflicts of interest and values between different stakeholders may result in different perceptions of privacy.

Part of this analysis is based on different elements of stakeholder theory, namely the descriptive, instrumental and normative elements. These elements can facilitate a more comprehensive view of the stakeholders that may affect or be affected by a certain attitude to privacy. In particular they highlight who the stakeholders are and what their perspectives concerning privacy issues are (descriptive element), what interests underlie these perspectives (instrumental element) and what values affect their attitudes (normative element).

The information age makes it particularly important to explore the perspectives of privacy as well as the interests and values of stakeholders. Indeed, the possibility to speed up information exchange and to aggregate information items may substantially alter what were previously understood as privacy interests; it may also generate new such interests. Moreover, there is an element of power associated with the interests and values of stakeholders. Certain stakeholders are in a better place to serve their interests and satisfy their internal values than others. This asymmetry of power may raise risks for the privacy of the weaker stakeholders.

The information systems literature provides ample evidence of the broad implications that the use of information technology can have on power and also on how power can affect the use of information technology. As a result, information systems may change the context of stakeholder relations and pose a systematic threat to privacy. The paper uses examples from the healthcare context to illustrate how this may occur in practice and how the theoretical framework can help in understanding the phenomenon and preventing inappropriate judgements in the context of privacy conflicts.

In conclusion, the paper makes a theoretical as well as a practical contribution; it uses different elements of stakeholder theory to explore the notion of privacy. This offers a dynamic framework within which appropriate measures to safeguard privacy can be set. We conclude that appropriate levels of privacy can only be defined taking into account the specific context and the information systems within that context.