This is a chapter in: Group Privacy: New Challenges of Data Technologies, edited by byLinnet Taylor,Luciano Floridi, andBart van der Sloot(Springer, 2017).
Group Privacy: a Defence and an Interpretation
Division: Oxford Internet Institute
Organization: University of Oxford
Address:1 St Giles Oxford OX1 3JS United Kingdom
In this chapter I identify three problems affecting the plausibility of group privacy and argue in favour of their resolution. The first problem concerns the nature of the groups in question. I shall argue that groups are neither discoverednor invented, but designedby the level of abstraction (LoA) at which a specific analysis of a social system is developed. Their design is therefore justified insofar as the purpose, guiding the choice of the LoA, is justified. This should remove the objection that groups cannot have a right to privacy because groups are mere artefacts (there are no groups, only individuals) or that, even if there are groups, it is too difficult to deal with them. The second problem concerns the possibility of attributing rights to groups. I shall argue that the same logic of attribution of a right to individuals may be used to attribute aright to a group, provided one modifies the LoA and now treats the whole group itself as an individual. This should remove the objection that, even if groups exist and are manageable, they cannot be treated as holders of rights. The third problem concernsthe possibility of attributing a right to privacy to groups. I shall argue that sometimes it is the group and only the group, not its members, that is correctly identified as the correct holder of a right to privacy. This should remove the objection that privacy, as a group right, is a right held not by a group as a group but rather by the group’s members severally. The solutions of the three problems supports the thesis that an interpretation of privacy in terms of a protection of the information that constitutes an individual—both in terms of a single person and in terms of a group—is better suited than other interpretations to make sense of group privacy.
The debate on Big Data (including Open Data) and Data Protection focuses on individualprivacy. How can the latter be protected while taking advantage of the enormous potentialities offered by ever-larger data sets and ever-smarter algorithms and applications? The tension is sometimes presented as being asymmetric: between the ethicsof privacy and the politicsof security. In fact, it is ultimately ethical. Two moral duties need to be reconciled proactively: fostering human rights and improving human welfare. The tension is obvious if one considers medical contexts and biomedical big data, for example, where protection of patients’ records and the cure or prevention of diseases need to go hand in hand.1
Currently, the balance between these two moral duties is implicitly understood within a classic ontological framework. The beneficiaries of the exercise of the two moral duties are the individual person vs. the whole society to which the individual belongs. At first sight, this may seem unproblematic. We work on the assumption that these are the only two ‘weights’ on the two sides of the scale. Such a framework is not mistaken, but it is dangerously reductive, and it should be expanded urgently. For there is a third ‘weight’ that must be taken into account by data protection: that of groups and their privacy.