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Home > Privacy Fundamentals > The Value of Making Personal Information Public

The Value of Making Personal Information Public

Individuals and consumers derive great benefits from making personal information public. It is a mistake to assume that personal information should necessarily be kept private. A few small examples will illustrate this.

Our names, addresses, and telephone numbers are personal, but few of us keep them private. They are personal in the sense that they are about us, but they exist so they can be given out and used by others to contact or serve us. Most of us want people to know where to visit us, send us mail, or bring emergency medical care when we need it. What we do inside our homes with the blinds drawn, on the other hand, is personal, but also something tasteful people keep private.

Information about what we have purchased in traditional retail stores is personal again, in the sense that it is something about us but this information has typically not been private. Shopping in a store requires you to show your purchases to a stranger a store clerk in full view of other shoppers. It may be said that part of forming a contract to purchase something involves identifying yourself and your purchases by presenting both to a clerk. (Imagine buying something at a store without doing this!) There is an enormous benefit to revealing ourselves and our purchases to others.

Of course, we do not have to tell anyone what or whom a purchase is for, and we can avoid sharing our names by paying cash. These pieces of personal information can be kept private at our option.

With the advent of catalog sales and e-commerce, our information sharing alternatives have increased. No longer do we have to appear in a public place to personally show goods and present money to a stranger. To engage in remote commerce, though, we have to share our names and addresses with the retailer. This allows them to deliver things to us. The growth of remote commerce has created new choices about what kind of personal information we reveal and to whom we reveal it when we purchase things. In any transaction like this, however, we get a benefit by sharing some information about ourselves.

We think about this rarely in our daily lives because most transactions come with understandings about what is to be kept private, and how information can and cannot be used. These understandings are backed up by the incentives businesses face and by the common law privacy torts Warren, Brandeis, and Prosser wrote about.


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[updated 8/28/00]

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