Privacy can keep histories of abuse hidden from public view

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in February 2016

400 words / 2 min.
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Privacy can serve both to protect individuals and to shield abusers from public visibility.

Please note that this post is from 2016. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

I want to quickly capture, without deep analysis, a problematic side of privacy.

The current fight between Apple and the FBI pits — rhetorically at least — the privacy of (potential) criminals against the rights of victims. (The FBI, I suspected, has chosen to discuss the impact on victims because the alternative of impeding federal criminal investigations is less compelling — and has the potential to awake American’s inherent distrust of government intervention.)

Whether the FBI is right is not what I am concerned with here.

Instead, I want to briefly note that privacy has had a troubled history in relation to victims of crime and civil rights violations.

Privacy protections help limit the exposure of names and personal details of campus survivors of sexual assault, for example, but similar protections often prohibit the disclosure of information about accused students, even when those students are found responsible.

Historically, ideas of privacy have served to hide domestic abuse from public scrutiny (the home has historically received the highest level of privacy in Anglo-American law and society, after all), protecting abusers from the repercussions of their actions and making it harder for victims to get assistance.

Similarly, although medical privacy protections (like HIPAA) serve to protect individual rights against potential invasions of privacy, they can also help hide longterm abuses by restricting access to key details to researchers and investigators.

Thus, for example, Johanna Schoen’s work on eugenic sterilization programs in the United States was impeded by well-meaning restrictions on her access to specific patient information on those who had been targeted for sterilization. North Carolina finally allowed her access to their records on their program (which lasted from 1934-1966), though irregularly and with some trepidation. She writes (on page 243):

[I]t became increasingly clear to me that the privacy laws that kept the records of all thirty state sterilization programs closed to protect sterilization victims had another effect: they also kept this history hidden from public view.

Anyone researching anything remotely modern runs into this problem (I did as I sought to look at the records of the Human Betterment Foundation in California). And, of course, it isn’t limited to historians (or reporters) working on health information; privacy justifications are regularly cited by government officials, too, in order to limit access.

It isn’t a simple problem to solve.


Photo via shauser.