Living in the 21st century means reconceptualizing privacy

The Greek society of Aristotle was the first to know two different spheres. Aristotle made the distinction between oikos and polis. The first meant the household, in which making money, managing property and producing was of the most importance. The latter was the place that free citizens would meet each other and reflect on social interest and public affairs. Aristotle was actually kind of the first person to advocate privacy, as he came with the idea of a ‘private sphere’. He argued that there was a domain for each individual in which public rulers should not interfere. Much later, in the twentieth century, Jürgen Habermas build on the distinction, and added the ‘public sphere’ as the space between the private sphere and the politics of the state (Habermas 1989). 

Nowadays, social media make for the two spheres to almost overlap. Privacy no longer belongs merely to the private sphere, but it has become a matter of importance in the public sphere as well. As this digitalization is a phenomenon of the last few decades, it is not surprising that we, as a society, have not yet adjusted to a new understanding of the concept of privacy – especially considering that we have seen privacy as a matter of importance within the private sphere for century after century. 

“I have nothing to hide”

The reason why it is so clear that our society does not think of privacy in public enough, is that a lot of people so strongly believe that they have “nothing to hide”. Now, this is exactly where we go wrong, because the distinction between these spheres becomes so blurry, we cannot clearly see what we should be ‘hiding’, or rather protecting. I’ll list three examples of conceptions of privacy that are no longer entirely useful in our digitalized society.

Privacy as consent

Some consider one having privacy as one having the possibility to (not) consent to the collection of one’s data. To be able to give consent, one must voluntarily, validly and while having full knowledge, and intentionally consent (Kim 2019). However, in the case of most social media, it is almost impossible to make sure all users have full understanding of, and have actually read, the extensive and difficult user agreements. People may believe they have nothing to hide, but they often don’t know if they are misled by manipulative information and/or believe they are better informed than they actually are. Myself included, probably. 

Privacy as intimacy

Others believe privacy is having full control over one’s personal information and being able to give up some of that control in return for varying degrees of intimacy. Such intimate information is thus shared between friends or love interests. However, privacy nowadays also extends intimacy, or perhaps the other way around. Richard Sennett even speaks of the ‘tyranny of intimacy’. In the public sphere too, we have become obsessed with private matters. We appreciate political leaders who share aspects of their personality, when an impersonal stance could suffice. In such cases, emotions suddenly interfere with politics. 

Also, on the other hand, the public sphere should be a space in which people can openly express their opinions on social matters. This is no longer always the case because of digitalisation. Social media often individualize and polarize, which creates compartmentalization and causes people to solely believe their own truth. 

Privacy as access

There are also authors who conceptualize privacy as having control over who accesses one’s personal information. However, this implicates that that information is accessed by another individual and thus that privacy lasts from person to person. However, a lot of our information in our time is online, which means that it is controlled by automated systems. People might feel that their privacy is not violated, because, for example, Facebook, is such a large, and thus impersonal, medium. However, a small transaction online, for example, could possibly result in a wider spread of your information than the same transaction in a store, handled by just one cashier. It enables companies to use your information and sell it to advertisers, which results in a larger power such a medium can have over you, although it might seem harmless.

This digital world thus calls for a reconceptualization of privacy. I could list more popular conceptions of privacy, but most would not withstand critiques similar to those I have given here. Privacy no longer belongs merely to the private sphere, but we have to consider its meaning in the public sphere as well. 


Habermas, J., The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Enquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (1989, Massachusetts)

Kim, N. (2019). Consentability: Consent and Its Limits. Cambridge University Press.