Skip to main content
Privacy and the information age
  • Serge Gutwirth
In a time in which new technologies make it easy to gather and process data, the discussion on privacy tends to focus exclusively on the protecting of personal data. To Serge Gutwirth, privacy involves far more. He advances the intriguing thesis that privacy is in fact the safeguard of personal freedom--the safeguard of the individual's freedom to decide who she or he is, what she or he does, and who knows about it. Any restriction on privacy thus means an infringement of personal freedom. And it's exactly this freedom that plays an essential role in every democracy Introduction of the book October 24, 1998, should have been the day. By then, the European Union member states should have brought their national legislation in line with Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 1995 on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data . It didn't happen. Halfway through the year 2000, when the English version of this essay was written, several European Union member states still had a lot of work ahead of them to meet the conditions. The directive aims to harmonize the national legislative systems in an attempt to secure the free flow of personal data, which is an internal market requirement. But it should also be seen in light of fundamental rights and freedoms. The directive also aims to provide a high level of privacy in the Union. Doubtless, both aspects truly have an impact. Nevertheless, it is mostly the latter which is stressed, primarily because privacy has positive connotations and appeals to everyone. Not a day goes by without a newspaper writing about an incident directly linked to privacy and, more often than not, tempers flare when discussions center on the threats facing privacy. So it should come as no surprise that many laws dealing with the processing of personal data have become known as "privacy laws." In name at least, it gave them a positive thrust. The European Union directive is not an isolated initiative and contains precious few new ideas. Quite the contrary, it is a perfect extension of the legislative movement which, since the 1970s, has sought to deal with the processing of personal data. From the start, two developments have had a decisive impact on those legislative efforts. One centers on the lightning development of information technology which has created a quantum leap in processing capacity. On the other hand, it has fed the fear that freedom is fast being eroded, as the countless references to Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World indicate. Reaction was swift and calls were made to safeguard privacy. Indeed, privacy had to be upgraded and reinforced to counter the power of computers and its inherent dangers. In one of Justice's scales are the legitimate processing needs of the public and private sector, in the other rest the private lives of individuals. The issue of the computerized processing of personal data seems to monopolize the interpretation of privacy. Nowadays, privacy is often defined as the control of individuals over what happens with their personal information. Privacy is purely turned into a check on the gathering, linking, processing, distribution and communication of data on individuals. It merely sets the limits within which these daunting activities can take place. The question arises whether such a limited perspective is not problematic. Does it allow us to say something about the importance of privacy in our society? Does it allow us to reflect on privacy's role as a core condition for a democratic constitutional state? Does this perspective allow us to tap into privacy's rich history? Doesn't this limited perspective create the risk that certain key questions will not be asked, allowing for the domination of an eroded concept of privacy? Doesn't one run the risk of building on incomplete, skewed and tendentious preconceived notions? And, does one have to look for a - deliberate or unintentional - hidden agenda? The ongoing privacy discourse also seems to be largely based on the introduction of technological artifacts, although privacy claims by far precede the introduction of computers. In the past and even now, countless non-technological situations in which privacy plays a key role have spawned countless words, discussions and visions. The question remains whether the current privacy discussion addresses the same kind of privacy. Is there no discrepancy between privacy invoked as a buffer against electronic personal data processing and privacy referred to by countless fundamental national and international norms? Doesn't it raise suspicion that the loud and omnipresent privacy discourse - yes, even privacy cult - emerges at a time when the practice and technology of transparency, behavioral control and influencing is at its zenith of accuracy, de facto reducing privacy to very little indeed? And is this suspicion not further fed by politicians, legal scholars, business and banking officials using the media to pay lip service to the privacy cult? Or is it because "privacy laws" in fact allow for the wholesale processing of personal data? Does this not again raise the question to what extent the privacy discourse and the new legislation it entails are really aimed at protecting privacy, or whether they are aimed at providing the legal endorsement for the violation of privacy at the service of other interests? This essay does not skirt these questions. To the contrary, it wants to deconstruct and reconstruct the discourse of privacy in light of reflections which go beyond the current controversies on the meaning and/or execution of the current legislation on personal data processing. The essay aims to provide the impetus for an enhancing, provocative and critical assessment on the place, use and value of privacy in a democratic constitutional state. The point of departure is that privacy is inherently linked to individual freedom, which is essential in such a state. Because of this, privacy affects the core of our concept of law. It also implies that, beyond the deconstruction of a certain privacy discourse, privacy can and must be given a positive and promising content, because it is emancipatory and liberating. In short, this essay does not only want to be critical and skeptical about obfuscating conceptions of privacy, it also wants to be positive and constructive, stressing the emancipatory power of privacy, which is intimately intertwined with personal freedom. This main objective is covered in the first four chapters. In the essay's fifth and final chapter, this approach will be extended to the area of personal data processing and the problems arising from the implementation of the abovementioned directive. We hope it will provide an impetus to broaden and open up the discussion of data protection in light of an overall reflection on individual freedom and privacy in a democratic constitutional state.
  • Privacy,
  • data protection,
  • information society,
  • surveillance,
  • tracing
Publication Date
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Critical Media Studies
0 7425 1746 2
Citation Information
Serge Gutwirth. Privacy and the information age. Lanham/Boulder/New York/Oxford(2002)
Available at: