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Home > Privacy Fundamentals > Privacy and Culture

Privacy and Culture

Every person in the world guards their privacy by assessing whether and when to share information with others. These judgments are made in ways dictated by culture, upbringing, and experience. We may judge whether to share information with others based on how they are dressed, how they speak, who initiated contact, their reputation, whether they seem friendly, whether and how they are related to us, whether they are corporations or individuals, whether they seem honest, and so on. There are as many ways of judging whether to share personal information as there are people. Privacy reflects individual, cultural, and social norms that resist being catalogued. Privacy norms can also change.

When we have business dealings with others, we can control by contract what becomes of the personal information we reveal. Many commercial interactions have at least implied promises of confidentiality. We give documents to a tax preparer, for example, with an implicit understanding that the privacy of personal financial information will be maintained. Like our personal interactions, almost all of our commercial interactions come with a web of cultural understandings about uses of information that is nearly impossible to describe. The rise of digital transfer and storage of information has started a worldwide discussion of what these cultural norms will be in the future.

When our cultural privacy norms are violated, there are a number of things we can do. Individuals, for example, thrive on sharing information. But when gossip goes too far and a person gives too much publicity to the personal information of another, both are likely to suffer. Such incidents counsel the victim and the gossip to be more circumspect when sharing personal information in the future. This is how privacy norms are made and reinforced in personal interactions.

When our cultural privacy norms are violated in a commercial context, we have remedies there, too. The most common and effective one is refusal to deal. People can easily be inconvenienced and offended when contacted for commercial purposes, and they will turn away from businesses that do this. Alienating customers is bad for business. More evidence of this comes from the practice among newspapers of not printing rape victims' names. Though they could, they recognize that this would offend customers and victims more than it would communicate newsworthy information.

The commercial entity that continues to use consumer information intrusively, defying common sense and good business, can be brought to heel by other consumerist actions. Offended people can publicize the offensive behavior, for example, encouraging others not to do business with the offender. Where even that fails, there remains the possibility of common law suits for invasion of privacy.

Consumers who are extremely sensitive about uses of their personal information can protect their sense of privacy and prevent those uses simply by withholding their personal information from everyone. This has costs. People who pursue a high degree of privacy may find themselves solitary and isolated. One cannot maintain a high level of privacy and have full interaction with society at the same time. The trade-offs between levels of interaction and privacy, however, are ones that individuals are well equipped to make based on culture, upbringing, and experience.


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[updated 04/17/02]

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