Why We Need Privacy In The Internet Age



Facebook - the ubiquitous social networking website - has been causing quite a stir lately with an on-going series of changes to its default privacy settings that make certain of its users' information more public.

As an occasional and somewhat reluctant user of Facebook, my reaction to these changes has been decidedly negative - I do not like them. Sensing that my reaction was more than just a basic desire for privacy, I wondered if there was more to the issue of privacy than mere personal preference. Curious, I began reflecting  more deeply into the fundamental nature of privacy and its role in our lives.

What I came to see is that privacy is about much more than just the satisfaction of a personal preference or desire. Privacy is ultimately a basic human need. Through the relationship between privacy and vulnerability, privacy plays an important role not only in creating intimacy in relationship but in the discovery and realization of our true self.


The Changing Concept of Privacy

Today, questions relating to privacy seem to be everywhere, and it is easy to see why. The move towards internet based computing is leading us to store and share more and more information about ourselves on the web. And it is not just the facts and figures of our lives that we are divulging. Social websites like Facebook and Twitter, whose profitability depends on their user’s information being as public (and searchable) as possible, urge us to publicize our very thoughts and opinions with little discrimination as to content, importance or interest. By asking that we reveal so much of ourselves, the internet pushes us to lead more public lives. In the process, it is literally turning the whole idea of what is public versus private on its head.

The internet even has the potential to make information that has historically always been public even more “public” by making that information increasingly accessible to everyone. Consider the case of real estate records, which have always been a matter of public record. In the past, actually viewing those records meant you had to schedule an appointment with the county clerk, make a trip to the clerk’s office and then sift through files and paper to find the relevant information. The net effect? Even though real estate records were “public,” the burden of searching them meant that in reality they remained relatively private. Today, however, the internet provides us access to the same information literally in seconds without ever having to leave our homes.


Do We Need To Care About Privacy?

So if technological advances like the internet are pushing us to move away from privacy for the sake of leading more public lives, do we need to be concerned? Some might argue that the only real concern is whether what is made public is used to harm or infringe on another’s person, reputation or property. Others might even say that having more public lives serves the greater good by making society more open and therefore less repressed. And there is certainly some truth to these points.

The problem with these arguments, however, is that they don’t go far enough. In examining the question of privacy, they only look to external risks and consequences (i.e. proof of harm) to ascertain how changes in our conception of privacy impact our lives. In doing so, they fail to take into account the question of how these changes impact the inner, psycho-spiritual dimension of the individual’s being. So instead of “proof of harm,” what we need is a deeper understanding of the nature of privacy and its true role in our lives.


Privacy Defined

Historically, privacy has been variously defined as that which is separate, secluded, out of view, special or set apart. However, the root meaning of privacy is something else and can be found in its etymological origins. The word privacy comes from the Latin root privus meaning “single” or “individual”. So privacy is also, by its very nature, a matter relating to the individual as distinguished from the government or the public. So, more specifically, we might say privacy relates to those aspects of an individual’s life that are set apart and withheld from public observation. From a psycho-spiritual perspective, this is tantamount to the individual’s inner life.

We can see from this definition that the question of privacy is essentially a question for the individual — not the government and not third parties — to decide. We can also see that it is in essence a question of boundaries -- privacy is a line of demarcation that defines what belongs to an individual’s inner life thereby distinguishing and ultimately separating it out from what is outer and in the public realm. It is through this understanding of privacy as an individual's boundary between inner and outer that it’s role as a basic human need is revealed.


Privacy as a Basic Human Need

In its function as a boundary, privacy carves out of the totality of our life an inner “womb-like” space that pertains only to us as individuals and that lies beyond the distractions, intrusions and noise of our outer life. This is important because it is within this inner space that we find the subtler aspects of consciousness including our feelings, emotions, sense of “center” and even our true self. Privacy does not create these subtle aspects of consciousness, but by creating a sheltered space in which they can exist, it is what allows them to become more revealed and ultimately known to us. Without privacy, these subtle manifestations would still exist but would remain mostly unknown to us as our awareness of them would be drowned out by the grosser and more obvious (i.e. outer) aspects of our lives.

Furthermore, by carving out this protected and personal inner space, privacy also gives rise to the sense of personal safety that is often so necessary to our willingness to be vulnerable. It is why almost all on-going therapeutic work is done privately, i.e. either one-on-one or in a closed group, and with heightened regard for confidentiality. And as is discussed below, by facilitating this kind of vulnerability, privacy becomes both the very ground from which intimacy and deeper relationship arise as well as the safe harbor that allows us to feel secure enough to do the deeper spiritual work of self-realization.


Privacy, Intimacy and Self-Realization

People often think of intimacy as something that comes up in a sexual context. But intimacy is much more than just a sexual experience. In its fullest expression, intimacy is about vulnerability in any context, not just a sexual one. More particularly, it is the experience of opening up and revealing — through the vulnerable quality of our presence — something of our true self, i.e. the undefended self that is “inner” (or hidden) as compared to our ego which is our “outer” self. And as just mentioned, what is inner or hidden is also what is private. So, we can say that intimacy arises from the vulnerability of revealing our true self through a process of opening up and sharing with another what is private. In this sense, without privacy, there is no possibility of intimacy.

This is important because intimacy is what gives depth to our relationships. Consider that when we only reveal what is most outer or “public” about us (i.e. our personality), we say that we are relating to the other “superficially” or that it is a “superficial relationship”. To create deeper relationship, we would need to become more vulnerable so as to reveal what is more hidden (i.e. private) within us.

The importance of privacy to our psycho-spiritual health is not limited to the realm of relationship and intimacy with others. Privacy also helps us to move through the realms of vulnerability that are so essential to the work of self-realization, i.e. becoming more self-aware through greater intimacy with ourselves.

Greater self-awareness — i.e. an experiential (non-conceptual) awareness of our deepest truths and nature — is what lies at the heart of all personal transformation. As such, the work of self-realization is an inner journey of discovery into the interior of who we are on our way to finding what is most subtle and most private in us — our true self. In fact, the connection between privacy, what is “inner” and our true self is so foundational that the failure to cultivate privacy in our lives is tantamount to a failure to cultivate our self. This is why spiritual practices that intend to connect us with our true self (e.g. yoga, meditation, prayer, etc.) are almost always solitary or retreat-like experiences.

Privacy is also important to the work of self-realization in another way. One of the more difficult aspects of the journey to self-realization is the often challenging work of acknowledging, then working through, and eventually letting go of our defenses (i.e. all the myths, images and masks that we create in an effort to protect ourselves from pain). It is through this process of becoming more inwardly “naked” and revealed that we uncover our true nature. As such, we simply cannot embark on the journey of self-realization unless we are willing to be vulnerable. Privacy offers us the safe space that helps us feel secure enough to become so exposed.


The Threat to Privacy

Looking at the role of privacy in relation to vulnerability, intimacy and self realization, we get a better understanding of why privacy is important in our lives. But public disclosures of information do not preclude us from maintaining a realm of privacy within our lives. So, in that sense, can we not allow technology to push us to lead more public lives even as we also continue to nurture the vulnerability and intimacy that privacy facilitates? And if so, do changes in [our concept of] privacy that are the result of technological really affect the psycho-spiritual aspects of our lives in any meaningful way? In other words, is there any real threat here? I believe the answer is still yes.

First of all, if privacy is, by definition, an individual matter, then it should always (or to the extent possible) be up to each individual, and not third parties, to determine where to set the privacy boundary for him or herself. Otherwise, we are simply allowing corporate entities to do what we would never allow the government to do (at least not without a compelling public interest) — to unilaterally transfer a significant amount of power and autonomy from the individual to the corporate sector. From a political perspective, such actions should have no place in a democracy that believes in a constitutionally implied (if not explicitly mandated) right to privacy. From a psycho-spiritual perspective, it is even clearer. The autonomy of the individual is paramount because it is only through the conscious experience of our individual life choices that we learn, grow and become empowered.

Secondly, such individual self-determination is precisely what is at the heart of privacy’s ability to create the sense of safety that facilitates vulnerability and intimacy. And part of how we exercise such individual self-determination is by choosing for ourselves the context in which our revelations occur. Notice, for example, that even though both intimacy and technology’s push towards more public lives are, in a certain sense, about disclosing what is private, they are not the same in terms of their impact on the human being. The difference lies in the context of the disclosure. A disclosure made in a moment of vulnerable intimacy is capable of creating deeper relationship and even of transforming our sense of self because it always brings us closer to our true self. Without this choice to be vulnerable, disclosing what is private may be enough to impart information about ourselves but it would not create the experience of relatedness that intimacy affords us. This is why the mere fact of knowing a lot of facts about a person does not necessarily mean that you are intimate with them.

Ultimately, however, one of the most disconcerting problems with our modern push to lead more public lives is the way it encourages us to lead more superficial lives by cultivating a culture or attitude towards privacy that undermines the importance of its role in our lives. In a world where public disclosures are the rule, privacy and the human experiences that depend on it (such as vulnerability and intimacy) become devalued. Consequently, image and perception end up taking on much greater importance in our lives because without the depth that vulnerability and intimacy provide, they become the de facto focus of our revelations. We end up losing touch with the more subtle aspects of our self (such as the nuances of our thoughts and feelings), and we never get to know our own deeper nature. Instead, we become more and more identified with what is most superficial in us through a process of claiming as “us” the very first impressions to rise to the surface of our awareness.



When we look at the question of privacy from a psycho-spiritual perspective, we see that it is much more than just personal preference. Privacy is a basic human need that, through its role in facilitating our vulnerability, forms the underpinnings of some of the most meaningful and important aspects of our lives as humans. And as we have seen, privacy is inherently (and by definition) an individual matter. Each of us has a responsibility to decide what is right for us (both in terms of content and context) when it comes to our own privacy boundary. As such, we must at least minimize the opportunities that allow others to decide the question of privacy for us. And it is important to choose both wisely and consciously because the privacy boundary is a one way affair - i.e. we can only reveal what is private to further increase what is public but not vice versa. Once something is public, it cannot be made private again.

The internet in particular and technology in general will undoubtedly continue to expand and become an increasingly larger part of our lives. And that expansion is likely to continue the push towards more public lives. If we are to create a healthy relationship with technology, then we at least need to understand both why it is important to maintain a realm of privacy in our lives as well as what it is that we are giving up when we choose to open up what is private to the public realm. Only in this way can our choices truly be informed and conscious.