Daniel Solove’s six general types of privacy

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in December 2011

1600 words / 8 min.
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Daniel J. Solove’s 2008 book, Understanding Privacy, attempts to characterize and understand the complex and contradictory modern views and approaches to privacy. For Solove, “[p]rivacy concerns and protections do not exist for their own sake; they exist because they have been provoked by particular problems” and it “is protection from a cluster of related problems that impinge upon our activities in related ways.”

Please note that this post is from 2011. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

Daniel Solove, in Understanding Privacy, attempts to characterize and understand the complex and contradictory modern views and approaches to privacy. For Solove, “[p]rivacy concerns and protections do not exist for their own sake; they exist because they have been provoked by particular problems” and it “is protection from a cluster of related problems that impinge upon our activities in related ways” (76). Understanding Privacy

He takes in many respects a practical approach, though he does look into philosophical issues too. But his concern is with “specific types” and “specific activities”:

We should conceptualize privacy by focusing on the specific types of disruption and the specific activities disrupted rather than looking for the common denominator that links all of them. … Instead of construction an understanding of privacy from the top down by first seeking to elucidate an overarching conception of privacy, we should develop our understanding from a bottom-up examination of the problems based on analogical reasoning. (76)

He takes a common-law jurist’s approach to analyzing a problem, one enshrined in the legal requirement that American courts must deal above all with specific “cases and controversies,” not general theories or philosophical ideas. From the specific facts and harms one can then reason by way of analogy to larger concepts, deriving rules that can be applied to current and future situations. In short, his is a classic American approach to legal reasoning. But it’s classic for a reason: it works.

The Six

To facilitate his analysis, Solove likes to use “classifications” and “taxonomies.” He thus begins by dividing privacy into six types (which he notes “often overlap”). These six are not so much normative or suggested analytic categories as they are ones commonly used in privacy analysis:

  1. the right to be let alone–Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis’ famous formulation of the right to privacy;
  2. limited access to the self–the ability to shield oneself from unwanted access by others;
  3. secrecy–the concealment of certain matters from others;
  4. control over personal information–the ability to exercise control over information about oneself;
  5. personhood–the protection of one’s personality, individuality, and dignity; and
  6. intimacy–control over, or limited access to, one’s intimate relationships or aspects of life. (13)
1. The Right to Be Let Alone

This deeply influential category comes from Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis’ 1890 law review article, “The Right to Privacy,” and “views privacy as a type of immunity or seclusion” (18). Warren and Brandeis were responding to the growth of an increasingly invasive and fast-moving press by seeking to demonstrate how traditional common-law torts could be rationally extended to cover this new situation, without introducing any radically new concepts.

Though it seems to emphasize noninterference, it actually often consists “of a claim for state interference in the form of legal protection against other individuals” (18). In many respects, especially as articulated to deal with the situation of invasive journalism, it runs into potential First Amendment conflicts that require, at the very least, balancing.

2. Limited Access to the Self

The point of this view of privacy–closely related to the previous–is to allow “every man to keep his affairs to himself” and “recognizes the individual’s desire for concealment and for being apart from others,” but it “is not equivalent to solitude [nor] of withdrawal from other individuals” (18). Conceptually, one flaw with this view is that it provides little guidance “as to the degree of access necessary to constitute a privacy violation” (20). It also does not clearly indicate who decides: is it about me deciding what access others have to my self? Or is there a sort of absolute or universal standard that can be brought into play?

3. Secrecy

Judge Richard Posner called this “concealment of information,” or the “right [of an individual] to conceal discreditable facts about himself” (21). Solove describes secrecy “as a subset of limited access to the self,” but in only one dimension: “the concealment of personal facts” (22). According to Solove, this conception “underpins the constitutional right to information privacy, an offshoot of … cases such as Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade” (22). It is also the aspect of privacy I identify most firmly with a clear constitutional right: the Fourth Amendment right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Legally, a privacy-as-secrecy approach often means that once a fact leaks, “it can no longer remain private” (22). Thus, Fourth Amendment jurisprudence “holds that matters that lack complete secrecy are not private” (22). This, garbage receives no protection because it is “knowingly exposed to the public” since it is “readily accessible” (22). Surveillance from aircraft does not implicate the Fourth Amendment either, since “the surveillance was conducted from a public vantage point” (22).

But such characterizations of privacy as secrecy misses out on a desire for confidentiality: “sharing the information with a select group of trusted people” (23). Protecting confidentiality–which I, picking up on Solove’s work, identify as a 19th-century concern–is a critical form of privacy for many people, especially in the medical context. Thus, understanding privacy as secrecy alone is too restrictive and too limited.

4. Control over Personal Information

According to Solove, a Clinton-era task force on privacy defined it as follows:

an individual’s claim to control the terms under which personal information–information identifiable to the individual–is acquired, disclosed, and used (24).

This is also the conception that healthcare laws related to privacy (like HIPPA) use. But again, this conception is overly narrow, since excludes non-informational aspects of privacy, “such as the right to make certain fundamental decisions about one’s body, reproduction, or rearing of one’s children” (25). It also generally fails to define what “control” means, and usually fails to effectively define the scope of what is protected (25-26).

Another, related approach to control over personal information makes information into property. This Lockean approach is “the backbone of intellectual-property law,” which itself derives much of its justification from the “romantic-author” notion of individual authorial (or inventive) creation: “one gains a property right in something when it emanates from one’s self” (26). The tort of appropriation, and the connected right of publicity, “protects people against others’ using their image or likeness for commercial gain.

But this conception also has problems, too. Personal information “is both an expression of the self and a set of facts–a historical record of one’s behavior” (27). Denying journalists the right to present those facts implicates the First Amendment, among other issues. Thus, truth is a defense to defamation, which itself is tort related to privacy.

Additionally, personal information is often formed through relationships (see confidentiality, above, too), and not by a single individual’s “self.” Thus, one person recounting their own story may implicate the story of someone else–should they then be restricted from doing so because it infringes on the other person’s privacy?

5. Personhood

The conception here is to protect “the integrity of personality,” and “often is used in conjunction” with other theories (30). Solove describes this as the theory underlying Griswold v. Connecticut, Eisenstadt v. Baird, and Roe v. Wade. It involves “choices central to personal dignity and autonomy” (31). I tend to agree with those that identify this right as more connected to liberty and autonomy than to privacy, but others (like Judith DeCew) suggest that there is an “intuitive notion of privacy invoked in the constitutional privacy cases” (31). In any case, I find “personhood” to be too vague to be useful, and I also find that thinking of it in terms of autonomy is more revealing than conceptualizing it as privacy.

6. Intimacy

This perspective connects privacy with personal human relationships as well as “individual self-creation” (34). It can be difficult to define exactly what is “intimate,” except in terms of what “individuals want to reveal only to a few other people” or similar “in-practice” definitions (35). It does help to unify certain conceptions of privacy with autonomy, though: “abortion is a private decisions because it is ‘an intimate one'” (36).

But again, this definitions tends to be too broad in scope. It is in many respects not much more useful than the term “privacy” itself (36). At the same time, it is overly limiting as a general theory because it is overly focused on interpersonal relationships alone.

So Now What?

Solove contends that the above theoretical conceptions “fail on their own terms” and “never achieve the goal of finding the common denominator” (38). So what should we do, then? His proposal is to dispense with “top-down” philosophy and to instead focus on the problems we face in four dimensions: method, generality, variability, and focus.

His method is pluralistic and draws on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s family resemblances: “privacy is not one thing, but a cluster of many distinct yet related things,” Solove writes (40). By generality, he means that he will pick a useful level of generality, one that is contextual and practical, not abstractly philosophical (40-41). He also acknowledges the variability of privacy and its historical and cultural contingency. He does not seek to provide a firmly fixed foundation for privacy, but does feel “it can still have sufficient stability while accommodating variability” (41). Finally, he limits his focus on privacy to privacy problems. Again, he seeks to avoid the abstract and philosophical and to stay with the particular and specific (41).

Solove’s approach may not appeal to philosophers, but it has the advantage (and, perhaps, disadvantage) of being practical for lawyers and judges to deal with. I approve of his practical goals, and I think the methods he uses can be usefully extended to historical cases as well as contemporary ones.