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Privacy Law and Policy Reporter

Privacy Law and Policy Reporter (PLPR)
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Cha, Kwang Myoung --- "A political assessment of privacy: a theoretical approach" [2003] PrivLawPRpr 45; (2003) 10(5) Privacy Law and Policy Reporter 93

A political assessment of privacy: a theoretical approach


People across continents have talked about privacy for generations. As the information age has arrived, however, we hear the word more often than ever before. Surely, it sounds important to most of us. And we feel that it is too crucial just to ignore. Indeed, we think of it all the time, but it is not easy to define what it is exactly.

There are many definitions of privacy. For instance, in the American Heritage Dictionary, privacy is defined as ‘the quality or condition of being secluded from the presence or view of others, or the state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion’ (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed, electronic version). Some folks may define it as the ‘right to be left alone’.

Whatever it is, one finds that existing definitions or assessments of privacy in the literature are either legal or philosophical and that the literature lacks theoretical assessments. In this article, a political assessment of privacy by employing a theoretical approach is attempted. Specifically, three political theories are used: realism, liberalism and Marxism. There are a couple of reasons to choose these particular theories. First, these theories are thought to be the most prominent and established political theories; thus, this theoretical assessment of privacy will be more accessible to readers than some alternative assessments with other theories. Second, it is thought that these theories are useful to analyse political relations whether they are individual relations or international relations. Because privacy can be seen in light of individual relations, theories that are frequently utilised to scrutinise political relations will help get a better understanding of the nature of privacy.

The realist: security

Realism assumes that the primary end of political action is power, whether in the domestic or international arena. Supporting Thomas Hobbes’s view of the state of nature (every man against every man), realism holds the belief that there exists no law or justice without power. In the international arena, anarchy is what characterises relations among nations because there is no overarching supreme authority regulating nations’ behavior.

From this perspective, an individual is constantly concerned about his or her own safety, even though the domestic national authority enforces law and oversees relations among members of the nation. As a result, security becomes something that an individual must obtain at all costs if he or she is going to survive.

In order for an individual to obtain security, established and respected law is needed. Without enforced law, one is never be able to secure oneself considering the state of nature. Privacy is also needed for an individual to feel safe. Assuming that privacy is the state of being left alone from the presence of others, the individual has to have some sort of his or her own space (not necessarily physical) that is absolutely free of the involvement of others in any form whatsoever if he or she wants to make sure that he or she is secured. Since privacy allows the individual to be relieved of the fear that someone might harm them, privacy serves them as a fortress of protection against the hectic outside world. In this context, privacy is neither a commodity nor a luxury, but a necessity. Precisely, it is security.

In the absence of privacy, the individual hardly can hide his or her Achilles heel, thus resulting in the exposure of everything to others — each of those others being assumed to have the sole interest of maximising power by using any means necessary in order to survive. On the contrary, privacy provides room for mental relaxation after the intense struggle of life in the external world, permitting the healing of wounds at the same time.

The liberal: autonomy

Liberals believe in personal freedom. They think that it is godgiven. In the state of nature, an individual is perfectly free and has free will. In such a state, man is self-interested and acts rationally. For liberals, an individual is a rational agent exercising free will. A self-interested and free willed agent, in accordance with liberalism, is independent and able to co-operate for the common good. Likewise, liberalism assumes that nations are capable of co-operating in the international community for common goals such as perpetual international peace.

From a liberal’s point of view, privacy means autonomy. In other words, privacy is what makes one autonomous. In the sphere of privacy, one is alone. One is left without any interference and that has nothing to worry about but oneself. The individual does not feel any innate need to care for others when left alone. There is nothing surrounding him or her but consciousness, and consciousness tells the individual to pursue self-interests.

An individual in privacy has nobody to depend upon. Alone, the individual has to be the judge of their own actions. In the process of judging their own actions, the individual needs to judge whether that action works for their own interests. Therefore, the action is rational, liberals assume. In privacy, any influences that might impair rational judgment can be avoided. The exercise of free will always be geared toward self-interests. And the exercise of his free will is the result of autonomy.

Without privacy, one is not independent. Without any privacy at all, the individual would not be aware that he or she is a being independent of others physically and mentally. With no privacy, everything personal would be known to others, and everything of others would be known to the individual. This would prohibit the individual from perceiving himself or herself as an independent being. Therefore, privacy as autonomy is the prelude to independence as well as the exercise of free will.

The Marxist: property

On the basis of the notion of class and class struggles, Marxists argue that the ruling class (for example, capitalists in capitalism) possessing the means of production maintains its rule over the other classes by subjugation them. Taking it to the macro level, the Marxist views international relations from a historical perspective, that is the continuous development of world capitalism.

For the ruling class to dominate the other classes, tight control of members of the subjugated classes is essential. And the best way to do it is to keep them under constant surveillance. In the world of capitalism, there is no place free from surveillance, especially working places. This means that one has to put oneself under surveillance for bread. Therefore, buying the labour of a labourer needed for production is buying the privacy of the labourer as well. In this sense, labour has privacy in itself. When a worker is hired by an employer, the worker agrees on the condition that to a certain extent, his or her privacy is given up to the employer. For a worker, thus, maintaining uncompromised privacy is costly because this can jeopardise the making of a living. To say this differently, a worker must pay for gaining privacy, which may mean losing a job.

In the domestic sphere, shelter reflects this concept. In general, one pays more money to rent a house than to rent a room of a house. This is not just a matter of the physical size involved; one is also paying for privacy that is associated with the room or the house. The more privacy the individual wants, the more money he or she has to pay. This logic applies everywhere.

Being seen through a Marxist lens, privacy is property. It can be, and is, sold and purchased. In an economic term, it has its own opportunity cost. Whether it is an inborn human right or a social convention, people buy it and possess it.


In the existing literature on privacy, almost all assessments of it are either legal or philosophical. Nevertheless, if a political approach is taken, privacy has different faces. From the realist’s viewpoint, privacy is security while the liberal would define it as autonomy. The Marxist, on the other hand, would see it as property.

The definition of privacy should not be simple since the concept is highly metaphysical. Perhaps giving a definition to privacy may even be a lost cause. However, assessing and defining may be necessary in order to understand and protect it better. l

Kwang Myoung Cha is a researcher in the Secretariat of the Personal Information Dispute Mediation Committee of the Korea Information Security Agency.

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