Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Real Meaning of Privacy Invasion

At this time of the year some people like to talk about the real meaning of things. So how about the real meaning of "privacy invasion"? These days people often say "my privacy was invaded" after somebody has exposed private information about them. Journalists write "Lax security leads to huge data breach, privacy invasion."

But what is there about Personally Identifiable Information being exposed that suggests the verb "invade" or the noun "invasion"? When we learn that Google keeps a lot of data about how we use the web, data that can be linked to us individually, what aspect of this suggests "to enter forcefully as an enemy; go into with hostile intent"? You might not like it, but surely the term invasion is wrongly applied in cases such as this.

Indeed, the term "invasion of privacy" started out as a way of describing what today we might characterize as people "putting their stuff in your face." Consider a couple who are arguing in voices so loud that the neighbors can hear. That is an invasion of their nieghbors' privacy, information about other people forcing its way in your world. Here's a real world example. I think my privacy was invaded when I was sitting in an aisle seat on a plane a few years ago and a young woman stood in the aisle, waiting to deplane, with her back to me, wearing a bolero top and low cut jeans, thereby revealing to me--before I had time to avert my eyes--an elaborate tattoo reaching down to her butt crack and featuring the word: Daddy.

This is not something I wanted to see. But I was pretty much forced to see it. My space was invaded. My private world was invaded. This might sound old-fashioned, but that's partly the point. People used to be able to go out in public without too much fear that deeply personal aspects of their fellow citizens would intrude upon them. I'm all for people doing whatever they like in private (as long as it causes no harm to the person or property of others) but I think I have a right not to be forced to know about it. That is one privacy right that is too often overlooked.

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