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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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