What is privacy anyway?

Privacy is often defined as “the right to be left alone” (OED). The key issue here is the ‘right’ – not the ‘alone’. Very few of us choose to be left entirely alone, we surround ourselves with people, phones, computers, tvs, radios etc. But we want to know we could be left alone in a given context: I’m happy to be called by family & friends at weekends, but have no interest in receiving calls from double glazing firms.


Sometimes I like it when my kids give me a break for an hour and amuse themselves quietly. I want that right. I want to be able to choose when to exercise it. I will decide the context, and that context will change all the time depending upon the nature of the interaction. Context and consent are therefore critical. Privacy itself is relatively straightforward – it’s context and consent that make this into such a thorny topic. Companies and governments are not traditionally good at understanding context or consent, but as humans it comes naturally to us. We need to find models that can reflect individual needs within huge populations, and translate those needs into practical commercial systems that satisfy users’ privacy needs.

[Originally posted on the EPG blog]

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