Privacy as Social Mechanism for Preserving Identity Inconsistency

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Privacy as a Social Mechanism for Maintaining Inconsistency Between Identities

Smadar Ben-Asher and Ran Wolff

The Book of Genesis relates that after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, “…the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles” (Gen., 3:7). Once their eyes were opened, their first act was to conceal their nakedness, in other words, to erect a buffer between them and the world. According to the Bible, privacy is not only the desire of the individual, and it is the responsibility of society as a whole to protect privacy as part of the perception of human dignity.

In general terms, the right to privacy can be defined as every individual’s right to preserve and protect his identity with regard to his body, thoughts, feelings, secrets, lifestyle, and intimate acts, and to choose which parts of his private domain can be accessed by others (Shwartz-Altshuler, 2012). Privacy is essentially the setting of boundaries, and issues concerning who defines them, where they are set, who sets them, and who protects them, have featured on the agenda since the concept of privacy was conceived.

From the time liberal democratic society recognized privacy as a value, there has been relatively broad agreement regarding its place and role in the social domain of human rights (Solove, 2007). However, although the concept is universally known and its usage is widespread and commonplace, privacy is an elusive concept: a small part of it is defined by law, while most of it is constantly being negotiated between the individual and himself, between the individual and the group, between the group and the authorities, and between the authorities and the individual. To a large degree definitions of privacy are contingent upon the context in which privacy is described (e.g., the legal system, the health system, culture, or interpersonal relations), and consequently attempts to define it as a single, shared concept that is accepted by all researchers and scholars engaged in the subject, encounter considerable difficulties.

The extensive body of research on the theoretical and practical foundations of privacy, especially in the sphere of the law (Birnhack, 2007, 2010; Rostholder, 2009), frequently refers to the beginnings of the privacy debate in modern society in the famous article written toward the end of the nineteenth century by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis (1890), in which they claimed that individuals have proprietary privacy rights to their personality as well, which they called “the right to be left alone”.

In most democracies today the right to privacy is protected under a series of laws that recognize the right of all individuals to privacy and family life, and stipulate that invasion of an individual’s private domain is not permissible without his consent. The law is obliged to implement the right to privacy in the numerous court rulings associated with it, but in legal theory, too, it is described as touching upon virtually every aspect of life: “This is a complex right that functions differently in different social, cultural, and economic circles, and the content of each circle is shaped according to the social context” (Birnhack, 2007:9).

Prosser (1960) examined seventy years of court decisions in which invasion of privacy had been at issue, and identified four categories in the hundreds of cases he reviewed: privacy in the public domain; using personal information for profit; publicizing private information; and presenting another in a false light. However, despite the comprehensive review, it soon transpired that even this division leaves the definition of privacy restricted and inadequate.

An attempt to demarcate and define privacy can also be found in Gavison (1988). She posits that privacy covers three spheres: physical invasion of the individual’s space or body; purchasing, using, and publicizing the individual’s private information; and the individual’s right to anonymity.

The innovation proposed in the present article is an observation of privacy issues from the perspective of social psychology in general, and Social Representations Theory in particular. This approach examines the boundaries of privacy in the context of the individual’s identity boundaries in society, and how society and the individual jointly set these boundaries, change them, and reset them, adopting social control mechanisms, which are also temporary.

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