Author: Ari Ezra Waldman

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Trust is What Makes an Expectation of Privacy Reasonable

A few weeks ago, I defined trust as a favorable expectations as to the behavior of others. It refers to a behavior that reduces uncertainty about others to levels that us to function alongside them. This is a sociological definition; it refers directly to interpersonal interaction. But how does trust develop between persons? And is that trust sufficiently reasonable to merit society’s and the state’s protection. What follows is part of an ongoing process of developing the theory of privacy-as-trust. It is by no means a final project just yet. I look forward to your comments.

Among intimates, trust may emerge over time as the product of an iterative exchange; this type of trust is relatively simple to understand and generally considered reasonable. Therefore, I will spend little time proving the reasonableness of trust among intimates.

But social scientists have found that trust among strangers can be just as strong and lasting as trust among intimates, even without the option of a repeated game. Trust among strangers emerges from two social bases—sharing a stigmatizing identity and sharing trustworthy friends. When these social elements are part of the context of a sharing incident among relative strangers, that context should be considered trustworthy and, thus, a reasonable place for sharing.

Traditionally, social scientists argued that trust developed rationally over time as part of an ongoing process of engagement with another: if a interacts with b over t=0 to t=99 and b acts in a trustworthy manner during those interactions, a is in a better position to predict that b will act trustworthy at t=100 than if a were basing its prediction for t=10 on interactions between t=0 and t=9. This prediction process is based on past behavior and assumes the trustor’s rationality as a predictor. Given those assumptions, it seems relatively easy to trust people with whom we interact often.

But trust also develops among strangers, none of whom have the benefit of repeated interaction to make fully informed and completely rational decisions about others. In fact, a decision to trust is never wholly rational, it is a probability determination; “trust begins where knowledge ends,” as Niklas Luhmann said. What’s more, trust not only develops earlier than the probability model would suggest; in certain circumstances, trust is also strong early on, something that would seem impossible under a probability approach to trust. Sometimes, that early trust among strangers is the result of a cue of expertise, a medical or law degree, for example. But trust among lay strangers cannot be based on expertise or repeated interaction, and yet, sociologists have observed that such trust is quite common.

I argue that reasonable trust among strangers emerges when one of two things happen: when (1) strangers share a stigmatizing social identity or (2) share a strong interpersonal network. In a sense, we transfer the trust we have in others that are very similar to a stranger to the stranger himself or use the stranger’s friends as a cue to his trustworthiness. Sociologists call this a transference process whereby we take information about a known entity and extend it to an unknown entity. That is why trust via accreditation works: we transfer the trust we have in a degree from Harvard Law School, which we know, to one of its graduates, whom we do not. But transference can also work among persons. The sociologist Mark Granovetter has shown that economic actors transfer trust to an unknown party based on how embedded the new person is in a familiar and trusted social network. That is why networking is so important to getting ahead in any industry and why recommendation letters from senior, well-regarded, or renowned colleagues are often most effective. This is the theory of social embeddedness: someone will do business with you, hire you as an employee, trade with you, or enter into a contract with you not only if you know a lot of the same people, but if you know a lot of the right people, the trustworthy people, the parties with whom others have a long, positive history. So it’s not just how many people you know, it’s who you know.

The same is true outside the economic context. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that of those teenagers who use online social networks and have online “friends” that they have never met off-line, about 70 % of those “friends” had more than one mutual friend in common. Although Pew did not distinguish between types of mutual friends, the survey found that this was among the strongest factors associated with “friending” strangers online. More research is needed.

The other social factor that creates trust among strangers is sharing a salient in-group identity. But such trust transference is not simply a case of privileging familiarity, at best, or discrimination, at worst. Rather, sharing an identity with a group that may face discrimination or has a long history of fighting for equal rights is a proxy for one of the greatest sources of trust among persons: sharing values. At the outset, sharing an in-group identity is an easy shorthand for common values and, therefore, is a reasonable basis for trust among strangers.

Social scientists call transferring known in-group trust to an unknown member of that group category-driven processing or category-based trust. But I argue that it cannot just be any group and any identity; trust is transferred when a stranger is a member of an in-group, the identity of which is defining or important for the trustor. For example, we do not see greater trust between men and other men perhaps because the identity of manhood is not a salient in-group identity. More likely, the status of being a man is not an adequate cue that a male stranger shares your values. Trust forms and is maintained with persons with similar goals and values and a perceived interest in maintaining the trusting relationship. But it is sharing values you find most important that breed trust.For example, members of the LGBT community are, naturally, more likely to support the freedom to marry for gays and lesbians than any other group. Therefore, sharing an in-group identity that constitutes an important part of a trustor’s persona operates as a cue that the trustee shares values important to that group.

What makes these factors—salient in-group identity and social embeddedness—the right bases for establishing when trust among strangers is reasonable and, therefore, when it should be protected by society, is that the presence of these factors is what justifies our interpersonal actions. We look for these factors, we decide to share on these bases, and our expectations of privacy are based on them.

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Trust Among Strangers, Preliminary Data

Last time, I spoke about how having a stigmatizing secret may be a reason why trust develops among strangers and that the trust that develops is strong enough to permit people to disclose intimate details about themselves. If true, this sociological hypothesis has profound effects for law and policy. If trust can develop among strangers in contexts where sharers will feel secure that their disclosures will not be disseminated further — namely, not go outside the group — then there is reason for the law to protect the privacy of these sharers, even though they shared information with alleged “strangers.” This conclusion bears some similarity with Lior Strahilevitz’s theory on social network-based privacy. But his work appears to take for granted that disclosures to strangers could never retain privacy. I disagree.

I have spent some time devising a proxy for trust and for testing the social determinants of it. Facebook “friend” requests may be a good first step. I would like to ask Facebook users if they accept Friend Requests from strangers and, if so, why. The survey will take the form of two questions: Do you accept Fried Requests from strangers. If so, responders will answer a second question that will ask them if any of a series of factors make it more or less likely that the stranger’s Friend Request will be accepted. The factors will use a Likert Scale of “Much More Likely,” “Somewhat More Likely,” “Neither More Nor Less Likely,” “Somewhat Less Likely,” and “Much Less Likely.” The experiment is designed to test the hypothesis that social networkers will approximate feelings of trust based on any number of digital social cues, but that each profile will see an uptick in Friend Request acceptances after a critical mass of “mutual friends” is established or where minority identity is the same. I will call the first phenomenon the trustworthiness of embedded networks. I also hypothesize that when strangers share a minority or traditionally disadvantaged identity, users are more inclined to accept a Friend Request from a stranger.

It’s common for field researchers to put out beta versions of their surveys to see if the questions are well-written and to identify any unforeseen results. With just under a hundred responses (way too few for a full study), the only factors that appear to have a statistically significant relationship to a willingness to accept friend requests from strangers are sharing a racial or sexual minority identity and having large numbers of mutual friends.

I see pitfalls in this study. The sample may be biased. The friend request proxy is imperfect. Many people simply to not accept friend requests from strangers, so the data set could be limited. I am eager to hear your thoughts on the operation and implications of the study.

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What Makes a Stranger Not So Strange

Most of the literature on trust among strangers comes from game theorists. Scholars perform simulations of so-called “trust games” to suggest that “impersonal trust” can develop under this or that circumstance. This literature is voluminous (the previous link is just one of many hits from a JSTOR search). The mere fact that trust among repeat actors can be seen in repeated evolutionary games should, at the very least, complicate a legal doctrine that necessarily extinguishes privacy upon disclosures. But you don’t have to understand (or agree) with game theorists to see the problem with such a bright line rule.

Over the last year, I observed different types of support group meetings, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and an HIV-positive support group. I interviewed several members, though many members declined to be interviewed, as I expected. These support groups thrive on privacy and anonymity. The very characteristic that made me want to study them was the very thing that would make it hard: members of such groups tend to know everything about a specific area of each other’s lives (their addiction), but often know precious little about a participant’s life and identity outside of what brought him to the group in the first place. In many cases, outside of the sponsor-recovering relationship, even last names remain unknown. And yet they share a secret that, unfortunately, retains a significant stigma in greater society.

This knowledge asymmetry is not always the case, I must admit. But for now, let’s accept the scenario: Participants are veritable strangers, except they know this one big secret about each other. This was in fact the story for most of the people I interviewed. And although this type of ethnography must always be a dubious source for grand conclusions about wide populations, we can still ask: Why do recovering addicts share their stigmatizing secret with strangers?

My research suggests it is because they all share the same stigmatizing secret. It is not simply that everyone shares the same secret or the same identity. People who are all Libras or all white males or all like Maroon5 do not necessarily feel a comfort level with those who were born at the same time, look the way they do, and listen to the same music, respectively. Rather, the shibboleth of a willingness to open up among strangers in this context is that everyone shares a stigmatizing identity. They trust each other not because they know them but because they know what they’ve been through in the greater world. And this is entirely reasonable.

I think this trust exists in other areas of life and not just in the unique support group environment. If it does, if trust develops among individuals who share a stigmatizing identity, then trust among so-called strangers can exist such that individuals would not be assuming the risk of further disclosure of a secret revealed to such a stranger.

I have designed a study to test this, using accepting/declining “friend” requests from strangers as a proxy. It is an imperfect proxy, but trust is hard to measure. But if we can control for other factors and see that friend requests from strangers are accepted more frequently by individuals who share a defining, stigmatizing characteristic — sexual minority status, is just one example — then we may have found a social determinant of trust among strangers.

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Why Some Risk Sending Intimate Pictures to “Strangers” and What It Says About Privacy

It is, as always, an honor and a pleasure to speak with the Co-Op community. Thank you to Danielle for inviting me back and thank yous all around for inviting me onto your desks, into your laps, or into your hands.

My name is Ari and I teach at New York Law School. In fact, I am honored to have been appointed Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy this year at NYLS, an appointment about which I am super excited and will begin this summer. I am also finishing my doctoral dissertation in sociology at Columbia University. My scholarship focuses on the law and policy of Internet social life, and I am particularly focused on online privacy, the injustices and inequalities in unregulated online social spaces, and the digital implications for our cultural creations.

Today, and for most of this month, I want to talk a little bit about the relationship between strangers, intimacy, and privacy.

Over the last 2 years, I have conducted quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews with almost 1,000 users of any of the several gay-oriented geolocation platforms, the most famous of which is “Grindr.” These apps are described (or, derided, if you prefer) as “hook up apps,” or tools that allow gay men to meet each other for sex. That does happen. But the apps also allow members of a tightly identified and discriminated group to meet each other when they move to a knew town and don’t know anyone, to make friends, and to fall in love. Grindr, my survey respondents report, has created more than its fair share of long term relationships and, in equality states, marriages.

But Grindr and its cousins are, at least in part, about sex, which is why the app is one good place to study the prevalence of sharing intimate photographs and the sharers’ rationales. My sample is a random sample of a single population: gay men. Ages range from 18 to 59 (I declined to include anyone who self-reported as underage); locations span the globe. My online survey asked gay men who have used the app for more than one week at any time in the previous 2 years. This allowed me to focus on actual users rather than those just curious. Approximately 68 % of active users reported having sent an intimate picture of themselves to someone they were chatting with. I believe the real number is much higher. Although some of those users anonymized their initial photo, i.e., cropped out their head or something similar, nearly 89 % of users who admitted sending intimates photos to a “stranger” they met online also admitted to ultimately sending an identifiable photo, as well. And, yet, not one respondent reported being victimized, to their knowledge, by recipient misuse of an intimate photograph. Indeed, only a small percentage (1.9) reported being concerned about it or letting it enter into their decision about whether to send the photo in the first place.

I put the word “stranger” in quotes because I contend that the recipients are not really strangers as we traditionally understand the term. And this matters: You can’t share something with a stranger and expect it to remain private. Some people argue you can’t even do that with a close friend: you assume the risk of dissemination when you tell anyone anything, some say. But, at least, the risk is so much higher with strangers such that it is difficult for some to imagine a viable expectation of privacy argument when you chose to share intimate information with a stranger. I disagree. Sharing something with a “stranger” need not always extinguish your expectation of privacy and your right to sue under an applicable privacy tort if the intimate information is shared further.

A sociologist would say that a “stranger” is a person that is unknown or with whom you are not acquainted. The law accepts this definition in at least some respects: sometimes we say that individuals are “strangers in the eyes of the law,” like a legally married same-sex couple when they travel from New Jersey to Mississippi. I argue that the person on the other end of a Grindr chat is not necessarily a stranger because nonverbal social cues of trustworthiness, which can be seen anywhere, are heightened by the social group affinity of an all-gay male environment.

Over the next few weeks, I will tease out the rest of this argument: that trust, and, therefore, expectations of privacy, can exist among strangers. Admittedly, I’m still working it out and I would be grateful for any and all comments in future posts.

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Thank you

I am always grateful for the opportunity to discuss topics we all find interesting with this community. I find it supportive and helpful, and it doesn’t hurt that Co-Op is filled with brilliant scholars. I am humbled and inspired by everyone’s comments and posts.

Thank you for inviting me onto your screens or your various mobile devices. Special thanks to the incomparable Danielle Citron for bringing me on this month and to Danielle and the amazing Frank Pasquale for their insightful comments about my work going forward. Works-in-progress only become great completed works with the help and support of others. That’s why I love Co-Op.

I look forward to meeting and working with many of you in the coming years. I am making arrangements now to workshop my research at law schools and sociology departments, so I hope to see some of you soon! Please feel free to email me at ari.waldman@nyls.edu if you would like to chat.

Happy Fall!

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Trust is a Funny Thing

Last time, we discussed briefly that Erving Goffman’s social theory gives us an interactional perspective on privacy as a social relationship of trust and discretion. But trust, like love and life, is a funny thing. Trust is sometimes confused with naivete (Marshall 1976) or hallowed by optimism (Millman 2001), but trust, and its corollary, discretion, are what makes social interaction possible. I would like us to think about privacy this way: trust and discretion are what online best practices should encourage; trust and discretion, not an individual right, are what society should actively protect.

This is not a common denominator approach (Solove 2001). I am not arguing that everything we traditionally think of as “private” is trust and discretion. Nor is this a pure social network approach (Strahilevitz 2005). I am not arguing that we should protect privacy based on the suggestion from social science research that individuals tend to share or disclose otherwise private facts about themselves when they assume that the disclosed facts will not jump from one social network to another. Professors Solove and Strahilevitz are correct in their warnings and recommendations. But I believe that protecting disclosures where trust and discretion exist add value to both of their important contributions in the following ways:

First, intimate sharing among strangers is a fact we cannot — and the law should not — ignore. Professor Strahilevitz’s masterful work, A Social Network Theory of Privacy, does a good job surveying some of the social network research about sharing. But that research is in its relative infancy, as we all acknowledge. What is missing is a detailed understanding of the type of information shared with different groups of friends, particularly bare acquaintances and strangers. I hope to contribute to this understanding with the quantitative and empirical portions of my dissertation. The beta version of my surveys seem to suggest that highly intimate — determined on a subjective scale — information is often shared with veritable strangers. If sharing with strangers exists, it seems like tilting at windmills for the law to try to erect barriers that we know will fall, at best, or create perverse incentives for social sharers and private industry, at worse.

Second, trust can exist among strangers (Macy and Skvoretz 1998) and further research into the social determinants of that trust can give us the tools we need to determine when it is reasonable for judge or jury to protect the privacy interests of certain actors. Much of the social science literature about trust among strangers is in the game theory context (Macy and Skvoretz 1998, Buchan 2002, Croson 2002, Grabner-Kraeuter 2002, etc.). The quantitative studies in my dissertation have the potential to help us understand privacy among strangers outside the decision-making and consumer context, but inside the friend/social sharing context. It is, for example, too simple to say that people “sext” because they don’t believe in or understand or think about or care about privacy. Nor is it enough to say that we engage with strangers in the physical world and online because we think our social networks are separate. I would like to prove that trust and discretion exist among strangers online when sufficient information exists to act as social cues for trustworthiness, with the most important cue being embeddedness, or connections to other individuals for whom the trustworthiness decision has already been made. That decision may, at times, be related to the target’s position in your social network. But more likely, embeddedness is an overarching factor for which social network position is a proxy, or social network position is but one in a series of cues for embeddedness. In either case, the social science evidence does not require us to stop at social network position. We need to take another step.

Much of this work is decidedly in the work-in-progress stage. I have appreciated the comments so far and look forward to any comments, questions from the CoOp community.

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What Can Erving Goffman Teach Us About “Privacy”

I hope those celebrating Yom Kippur had a an easy fast.

We’ve already seen a few clues into the famous sociologist’s assumptions about privacy. As I discussed last week, Goffman seemed to fall into the trap of burdening his vision of “the private” with a negative moral judgment: we do things in secret because to do them in public would be embarrassing, discrediting, or worse. The private sphere was assumed to be the place where we literally let our hair down, literally let out our gut, and literally curse our our bosses. (And I am using the word “literally” correctly here, not according to the frustrating new definition, which will literally — ahem — make your head explode!).

In a series of short posts, I would like to flesh out what else we can learn from Goffman regarding the sociologists’ assumptions about privacy. It’s worth looking at Goffman, not only because of the seminal role he continues to play in sociological theory (if not methods) but because his theories are part of the culture and zeitgeist in which privacy scholars from the legal and philosophical worlds also live.

Goffman is famous, in part, for his back stage/front stage distinction in his discussion of micro- and macro-social interaction. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman (1959) analyzes social interaction through an extended theatrical conceit, comparing individuals to actors on a stage. He separates the front stage, where the performance of social interaction occurs (p. 107), and the back stage, where individuals can drop the façade of performance (p. 112). And he describes them as places, or “setting[s]” (Goffman, 1959, p. 107). The back stage is a place of hiding (Goffman, 1959, p. 113), so that devices like telephones, closets, and bathrooms “could be used ‘privately” (p. 112). It is also cut off from the front stage by a partition, passageway, or curtain (p. 112). The backstage, then, is defined by providing the performer with a private space—like a home, a green room, or a bathroom—to do certain necessary things away from an audience.

This sounds like a perfect tool for supporting spatial assumptions about privacy. But that would be taking Goffman too literally.

Perhaps we should resign ourselves to the idea that Goffman is a moralist who has a limited view of privacy as a place for deviance. My previous post certainly offered strong evidence of that. But, again, that might be taking Goffman too literally. More importantly, it misses what I feel is his greatest contribution to the study of privacy from a sociological standpoint.

Consider Goffman’s (1972) explanation for why staring and “intrusive looks” (p. 45) are, to use his words, “invasions of privacy.” Staring, Goffman (1963) writes, is not an ordinary or appropriate social interaction: it discriminates against the target and puts him “in a class apart” (p. 86). You stare at zoo monkeys, not people, so the invasion of privacy must either be a threat to the victim’s dignity as an end in himself, per Kant, or a breach of some implied duty that individuals owe one another. Goffman, true to his sociological roots, argues the latter, calling it a duty “civil inattention” (p. 85). This has groundbreaking implications for the study of privacy.

Civil inattention is a form of polite recognition of strangers, manifesting itself in nods of acknowledgment alongside a respectful modesty not to intrude where you do not belong. Staring at a physically injured or deformed bystander is the antithesis of civil inattention. In this example, the target might consider his injury “a personal matter which [he] would like to keep private” (Goffman, 1963, p. 86), but the fact that it is visible makes it publicly obvious. This obvious injury “differs from most other personal matters”—namely, those personal or private things that go on in the private sphere—because everyone has access to the injury regardless of how much the target would like to keep it secret (Goffman, 1963, p. 86). We are told not to stare precisely because the behavior’s abnormality disrupts the normal course of social interaction. It has been known to cause fear and flight (Ellsworth, 1972).

And so, as bystanders in general, we owe a duty to other individuals to treat them with discretion. Every interaction includes bystanders’ social obligation to protect social actors so that their interactions can continue. We have a “tactful tendency … to act in a protective way in order to help the performers save their own show,” Goffman (1959) writes, using his theatrical conceit to analogize to everyday social interaction (p. 229). We show extra “consideration” for novice performers, i.e., the young, who, because of the likelihood of mistakes, could damage ongoing social interaction by lapsing, forgetting how to behave, or brazenly engaging in asocial behavior, like nail-biting, nose-picking, or staring (Goffman, 1959, p. 323, 132). This tact is simply another word for discretion and respect: the knowledge that he is a beginner is appropriately set aside and ignored so that the performance can continue despite his mistakes. We also owe a measure of “tactful inattention” to neighboring conversations and nearby individuals to guarantee the “effective privacy” of others, a principle colloquially encapsulated by the phrase, “keep one’s nose out of other people’s” business (Goffman, 1959, p. 230). Privacy invasions, therefore, are not simple intrusions into personal territory or the disclosure of negative behaviors; rather, they are socially inappropriate behaviors that violate the trust and discretion we owe others.

Privacy-as-trust and discretion is also captured in Goffman’s early essay, The Nature of Deference and Demeanor (1967). Deference conveys respect “to a recipient or of this recipient, or of something of which this recipient is taken as a symbol, extension, or agent” (p. 56). In doing so, deference certainly imbues others with value and dignity; but that is merely a byproduct of the overarching purpose of creating a path for interaction. Rules of deference and respect constitute “rules of conduct which bind the actor and the recipient together” and “are the buildings of society” (Goffman, 1967, p. 90). In others words, they cue others as to our potential as interaction partners. This is the role of privacy. It creates a sense of confidence that allows people to share.

Teasing out this argument is how I would like to spend the remainder of my posts for the month. It highlights the central theoretical contribution of my dissertation.

And with that “Who-Shot-J.R.”-style cliffhanger, I leave you… for now.

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Deviance in the Sociologist’s Assumptions About Privacy

When last we spoke before the Jewish New Year (Shanah Tova, u’metuka to all who celebrate and G’mar tov as we approach the Day of Atonement), we had only begun to touch on the sociologist’s assumptions about privacy. In that post, I used the example of the sociologist Robert Maxwell’s assumption when he was studying sexual practices and social mores that “private” automatically referred to a “secret” or “hidden” space. I do not think, and did not mean to imply, that Professor Maxwell set out to study privacy per se; rather, it is clear from his discussion and his notes that the private world was a hidden world separated by walls. That’s why he studied wall construction permeability when he wanted to determine the pervasiveness of sexual norms.

The limitation to spaces is only one problem with the traditional sociologist’s assumptions about privacy. Another has to do with secrets. An entire branch of sociology focuses on secrets, which may indeed be a subset of the entire world of so-called private things. But too often, sociologists burden their discussions of private secrets with a normative moral weight: that is, a secret is private, or must be kept private, because it is deviant.

In his seminal article, The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies, Georg Simmel concluded that privacy is a “universal sociological form” defined by hiding something. It is universal in that we do it all the time: If all relationships between people are based on knowing something about each other, keeping certain facets of ourselves hidden can define those relationships. This does not necessarily mean that the person who knows more about us is more correct in his assessment of who we are; rather, different pictures of us are true for different people. Secrecy, therefore, allows us to do things and maintain relationships we would not otherwise be able to in a world of complete knowledge.

Simmel’s theory has one distinct advantage over any conception of privacy based on spaces: his discourse on secret societies can help us understand when a secret has ceased to become private. Privacy-as-separation fails in part because it is too strict—privacy can be eroded when one other person gains access. For Simmel, a secret can maintain its private nature, its inherent secrecy, throughout a group of people when keeping the secret is part of the identity of that group. Members of secret societies “constitute a community for the purpose of mutual guarantee of secrecy.” They define themselves by engaging in rituals and through separation from the rest of society. This does not just happen in cults; social cliques turn their backs on others or deny conversation to outsiders and groups of friends maintain each others’ secrets all the time. In all cases, the group is defined by what it knows and it expresses its privileged status by closure.

A mentor mine, the sociologist Diane Vaughan, connected this conception of secrecy with intimacy in her study of how couples break up. “We are all secret-keepers in our intimate relationships,” Professor Vaughan argues. Secrets can both enhance relationships, by smoothing over differences or by creating the intimacy of co-conspirators, and contribute to their collapse, by allowing plans to be developed without open inspection, intrusion, consent, or participation from others. And Erving Goffman would agree that this type of secrecy is an important element of privacy. “If an individual is to give expression to ideal standards during his performance,” Goffman writes, “then he will have to forgo or conceal action which is inconsistent with these standards.” In this view, privacy is the concealment of things that contradict an individual’s public facade: the “private sacrifice” of some behavior will permit the performance to continue. This is what Goffman’s famous back stage is really for. It is not, as a spatial theory of privacy would suggest, a room, stall, or secluded place; rather, it is the locus of private behavior, of secrets. For example, servants use first names, workers laugh and take breaks, and management and employees may eat together and converse informally. In some cases, this culture is associated with a space; but it is what we do in the backstage, the secrets we hide there, that defines it.

But the central failure of assuming privacy as something to do with secrecy is the tendency to conceive of those secrets as discrediting, embarrassing, or, to use the sociologist’s term, deviant. Deviance refers to behavior that violates the norms of some group. A tilt toward deviance, in turn, places a severe limitation on using secrecy to justify a legal right to privacy: if our secrets are so discrediting, society would rarely, if ever, see a need to protect them.

Much of the sociological discourse on secrecy and intimacy as it relates to privacy devolves into a normative moral judgment about those secrets. Despite the fact that he professes to make no such judgments, Goffman’s view of secret, hidden behaviors, for example, has a decidedly negative bias. The back stage is littered with “dirty work” and “inappropriate” conduct done in “secret” if it was fun or satisfying in some way. From this introduction of the back stage, Goffman only further burdens it with a normative twist. People “lapse” in the back stage, drifting toward indecorous behavior. They laugh at their audience, engage in mock role-playing, and poke fun through “uncomplimentary terms of reference.” They derogate others and brazenly lie and keep “dark” secrets.” Behind involvement shields, individuals do “sanctionable” or “unprofessional” things, like nurses smoking in a tunnel or adolescent horseplay outside of the view of others. Goffman also points to the little misbehaviors—activities he calls “fugitive involvements,” no less—that you can engage in when outside the public view:

While doing housework: You can keep your face creamed, your hair in pin curls; … when you’re sitting at the kitchen counter peeling potatoes you can do your ankle exercises and foot strengtheners, and also practice good sitting posture. … While reading or watching TV: You can brush your hair; massage your gums; do your ankle and hand exercises and foot strengtheners; do some bust and back exercises; massage your scalp; use the abrasive treatment for removing superfluous hair.

Privacy, then, is about concealing bad things, not just concealment in general. The anonymity provided by privacy does not merely allow someone to do something different; rather, it allows him to “misbehave,” to “falsely present[] himself, or do the “unattractive” things inappropriate in the public sphere.

One of Goffman’s major works, Stigma, is entirely concerned with negative or inappropriate behavior. That may sound like an uninspired conclusion given the title, but what is most telling is not the mere recitation of stigmatizing activities and things, but rather the implication that the private sphere is defined by stigma. Stigmas are “discrediting,” “debasing,” and “undesirable.” They are “secret failings” that make us “blameworthy” and “shameful.”

It is hard to deny the moral dimension to this discussion of private behaviors, activities, and symbols. They are stigmatizing, at worst, or dissonant with normal social interaction, at best. In either case, there is a moral dimension that burdens privacy with an attendant profanity and that profanity does violence to our ability to protect privacy thus understood: if the private sphere is characterized by dark secrets, or behaviors and activities that society refuses to tolerate, it is unclear how a right to privacy could ever exist.

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Introductions and the Sociology of Privacy

It is always a pleasure to join the Concurring Opinions community, one that I find supportive and tough, insightful and witty. I hope to contribute to ongoing discussions, raise a few eyebrows and bring some new perspective to issues of great concern to us all. Thanks to the incomparable Danielle Citron and the Con-Op community of leaders for having me on this month, and thank you in advance to all the readers for indulging my interest in sociology and privacy.

That is what I’d like to write about this month. My research is on the law and sociology of privacy and the Internet, but I am particularly concerned with the injustices and inequalities that arise in unregulated digital spaces. This was the animator of my previous work on bullying and cyberharassment of LGBT youth. This month, I would like to speak more broadly about how sociologists (I am completely my Ph.D. in sociology at Columbia U) talk about privacy and, by the end of the month, persuasively argue that we — lawyers, legal scholars, sociologists, psychologists, economists, philosophers and other social scientists and theories — are, for the most part, thinking about privacy too narrowly, too one-dimensionally, too pre-Internet to adequately protect private interests, whatever they may be. But before I get there, let me start small.

Many of us are familiar with the work of legal and economic privacy scholars, from Dan Solove to Alessandro Acquisti, from Jeffrey Rosen to Larry Lessig and Julie Cohen. All incredibly smart and insightful academics who have taught me much. But many are less familiar with sociologists like Robert J. Maxwell (not to be confused with the Robert Maxwell who produced “Lassie”) who’s work I would like to discuss briefly. I argue that Maxwell’s work evokes a typically narrow conception of privacy too common among sociologists: that privacy is, at best, about mere separation from others and, at worst, about the space for deviance.

Maxwell wanted to know about the presence of premarital sex in preindustrial societies. So, using an established data set including all sorts of details about these societies, Maxwell decided to look at the connection, if any, between sexual norms and, of all things, the permeability of wall construction materials. The codings for whether sex was allowed ranged from “premarital relations not allowed and not sanctioned unless pregnancy results” to “insistence on virginity; premarital sex relations prohibited, strongly sanctioned in fact rare.” Wall material codings ranged from the relatively impermeable “stone,” “stucco,” “concrete” and “fired brick” to “nonwalls” (literally, no walls, or temporary screens). He was working off the glass houses hypothesis — people who live in glass houses will not throw stones. Therefore, he thought that the more permeable the wall, the less rigid the antisex norms.

He was right.

He found that there was inverse relationship between the permeability of the materials used in wall construction and the rigidity of the norms regulating premarital sex for women.

The data provide a simple, though imperfect, proxy for talking about privacy in a discrete social unit. Walls are barriers to knowledge about what’s going on behind them (though, not impenetrable barriers, see Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001) (heat sensors used to pierce the wall of a home)). Strong anti-premarital sex norms existed in communities that could afford to have them, i.e., communities that had impenetrable walls to create hiding spaces. Communities without walls or hiding places more likely had their members have sex out in the open or, at least, in view of others. They could not afford or were not able to have strict antisex norms.

This tells us two things about how sociologists study privacy.

First, sociologists tend to think about the private as separate from the public and indulge in an oft-used spatial analogy. In fact, they’re not alone. Much of the social science literature uses the rhetoric of spaces, territories, walls, and other indicators of literal separation to support theoretical arguments. For example, Joseph Rykwert, an historian of the ancient world, argued that there was a direct correspondence between ancient conceptions of privacy and the women’s rooms in the home, on the one hand, and public behavior and the men’s rooms, on the other. The distinction in the home was literal. In his work on secret societies, Georg Simmel not only argued that “detachment” and “exclusion” were necessary for the success of a secret organization, but analogized the role of the secret to a wall of separation: “Their secret encircles them like a boundary, beyond which there is nothing.” Erving Goffman, a preeminent sociologists whose work almost every undergraduate reads in a Sociology 101 course, built his entire microsociology theory of how people behave in public around a theatrical conceit that distinguished between the “front stage,” where the action happened, and the “back stage,” where the actors could kick back. And so, when the Maxwell wanted to study sexual intimacy in pre-industrial societies, he chose to study wall construction, material permeability, and hidden spaces to determine if there was a relationship between intimacy norms in the greater society and private behavior.

But conceiving of privacy as sequestration or as a hidden space has its limits. Neither Goffman nor Simmel ever really meant their analogy to be put into practice. Both wrote much about how privacy could exist in public, in crowded rooms and when you around many other people. And yet privacy-as-sequestration in a space permeates the law of privacy, from the continued sanctity of the home to old cases like Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928), that hinged privacy invasions on an actual, physical trespass. Some sociologists appear to be guilty of the same lack of imagination that Justice Brandeis called out in his Olmstead dissent: “The protection guaranteed by the amendments is much broader in scope. The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone-the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”

The second thing this approach to the study of privacy tells us about sociologists and privacy is that they, and many other scholars, burden privacy with a moral dimension. They associate privacy and private places with deviance. This is where I will pick up in my next post.

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Thank you and Goodnight (and Some Thoughts on Anti-Gay Discrimination in Schools)

It has been an honor and a pleasure to be a small part of the Co-Op community these past two months. I learned a lot and had fun doing it! I’d like to thank everyone for their indulgence and comments, with special thanks to Danielle for inviting me in the first place.

For my final post, I would like to follow up on what is going on the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota.

In the mid-1990s, the District adopted a health curriculum policy prohibiting teachers from teaching that homosexuality is “normal” or a “valid lifestyle.” According to the anti-gay organization that lobbied the District to adopt that rule, “[t]he homosexual lifestyle does not reflect the community standards of District #11, nor is it regarded as a norm in society.” That policy was extended beyond the health curriculum in 2009, when the District adopted a so-called “no promo homo” rule and a neutrality policy that stated that “[t]eaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations. Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions.”

In a Complaint from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) representing several students, the SPLC notes that the policies act “as a gag policy that prevents school officials from complying with their legal obligations to keep safe students like Plaintiffs who are perceived as LGBT or gender non-conforming. This gag policy requires District officials to enforce anti-harassment policies in the case of anti-LGBT bullying differently from other types of bullying. Teachers have understood the [policy] as inhibiting them from aggressively responding to anti-gay harassment, inside or outside the classroom. The gag policy also prohibits school staff from countering anti-gay stereotypes or presenting basic factual information about LGBT people, even when necessary to address anti-gay hostility within the student body. For example, pursuant to District guidance, the [policy] prohibits staff from even mentioning the fact that it is the position of the American Psychological Association that being gay is not a choice— a position that is the consensus of all major accredited and professional mental health organizations. The [policy] severely limits or outright bars any discussion by school officials of issues related to LGBT people in or out of the classroom, a limitation
that is not placed on any other category of persons.”

The SPLC raises Equal Protection, Title IX and Minnesota Human Rights Act arguments. The full Complaint is available here.

There are also free speech arguments. Do you think SPLC should have emphasized the ways in which Anoka-Hennepin’s policies infringe on the free speech rights of teachers?

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