Woodrow Hartzog, ‘What is Privacy? That’s the Wrong Question’

ABSTRACT
Every year on the first day of my course on information privacy law, I ask my students to define the concept of privacy. Usually, I get a few different answers, each of which is built around some singular and definitive conceptualization of privacy. Some notions include: Privacy is ‘control over personal information’. Privacy is ‘secrecy’. Privacy is the ‘right to be left alone’. And so on. Then I gently push back, asking my students about notions of privacy that fall outside their definition. Which definition should the law adopt? All of these definitions seem right, yet somehow not enough. I ask whether it is a good idea to define privacy so broadly that it is synonymous with all personal interference. My goal is for students to appreciate that there are many ways to conceptualize privacy, each of which is underinclusive or overinclusive. I point to the many ways that scholars have explored various components of the important but remarkably vague notion of privacy, happy to leave its definitive boundaries undefined. Scholars and lawmakers are not always so comfortable with such uncertainty; I have made my peace.

Hartzog, Woodrow, What is Privacy? That’s the Wrong Question, University of Chicago Law Review: volume 88: issue 7, article 8 (2021).

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