government authorities can inhibit legal and legitimate social and political gatherings.

However, the fact that tradeoffs are sometimes necessary should not be taken to mean that tradeoffs are always necessary. In some cases, careful design and planning will minimize the tradeoffs that are needed to attend to societal needs without compromising personal information. An example might be a design decision for a system to discard data immediately after it has been used for the purpose at hand—in many instances, privacy concerns are strongly mitigated by the non-retention of data.

This perspective makes clear that the social context in which privacy is experienced has shifted in recent years. Identifying balances that people are comfortable with in legal affairs, security provisions, behavioral norms, and relationships will require an ongoing dialogue involving numerous stakeholders and constituencies. Expectations of privacy formed in the preindustrial age were not sufficient after the industrial revolution, and it should not be surprising that notions of privacy developed during the industrial age should show signs of stress in the new information age. It is at just such times of changing capabilities and expectations that we need to examine the core of our notions of privacy to ensure that what is most important survives the transitions.


There are many pressures to diminish privacy, regardless of how the term is defined, but there are also a number of tools available to help protect privacy. These tools fall into three generic categories:

  • Personal unilateral actions (self-help). When information collectors rely on individuals themselves to provide personal information, these individuals can take action to withhold that information. They can refuse to provide it at all, or they can provide false, misleading, or incomplete information. A common example is an affinity card, which entitles the holder to a discount on store products. Affinity cards are typically provided to an individual upon receipt of a completed application, which usually involves a questionnaire about income, demographics, and spending habits. There is often no verification of the information provided or sanction applied for inaccurate information, and so many individuals simply provide inaccurate information. Withholding information also works to protect privacy, although it may also deny one certain benefits, such as a license or a job. Neither of these approaches is well advised, of course, when there are excessively negative and severe consequences to withholding or providing false information.

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