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Definition: privacy from The Chambers Dictionary

seclusion; (one's right to) freedom from intrusion by the public; avoidance of notice, publicity or display; secrecy, concealment; a place of retreat or retirement (rare); a private matter (rare). [private]


Summary Article: Privacy from Encyclopedia of Human Relationships

Privacy is considered a cultural value, and legal scholars have grappled with the parameters setting the standard for privacy issues. However, in the context of human relationships, privacy is more dynamic and increasingly relevant as technological advances change the fabric of how people interact. In general, privacy in the United States is defined as information, territory, space, or possessions that people believe they have the right to own and over which they exercise control.

Broadly, privacy may be further conceptualized as instances when people restrict access to others and safeguard autonomy. However, within human relationships, privacy refers not only to restricting access, but also to conditions under which others are granted access to private information, space, and possessions. An easy way to conceptualize this process is to consider all that people hold private as being housed within a boundary. When wishing to grant access, individuals open that boundary allowing others admittance to space, private possessions, or private information. When individuals opt to retain privacy, they close boundaries and keep others out. This entry discusses the conditions of privacy, privacy management apparatus, privacy invasions, and current privacy trends.

State and Conditions of Privacy

Several conditions represent the state of retaining privacy. For example, people may seek solitude achieving freedom from observation by others. Alternatively, people may strive for a privacy that affords liberty to act in public without concern for being identified, thus achieving a state of anonymity. Finally, privacy is attained through limiting disclosure to others. In addition to conditions of privacy, there are also privacy functions that represent reasons for limiting privacy access. Thus, privacy grants personal sovereignty by avoiding the possibility of being dominated by others. Privacy allows an emotional release from role demands. Privacy provides opportunities for evaluation by temporary separation from human relationships allowing time to process information. Privacy additionally offers protected communication to share personal information with trusted others. Finally, privacy protects potential vulnerabilities from exposure of information that might compromise reputations of individuals. Thus, people limit access to privacy boundaries to achieve one or more of these goals.

Privacy Management Apparatus

Human relationships require both privacy and granting access to others. Individuals cannot sustain relationships if they do not allow others to become privy to their personal moments, information, or space. At the same time, people need to preserve autonomy through managing privacy. To have an optimal relationship with others, people require both privateness and publicness. Because these are concomitant needs, individuals develop strategies to manage them simultaneously. People control their privacy boundaries by regulating access through the development of privacy rules. People develop those rules by using decision criteria, such as motivations for access, cultural expectations, personality needs, and risk-benefit assessments that impact levels of access.

Privacy Invasion, Violations, and Dilemmas

When others encroach on an individual's space, misuse information, or treat possessions in unacceptable ways, that person feels violated. In U.S. society, some violations are considered to be legal matters. For example, although people typically trust medical professionals, with new health care technologies such as electronic medical records, patients have voiced uncertainties about the likelihood their privacy is protected throughout the health care system. Laws such as the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 were crafted to protect patient privacy. Beyond legalities, people have emotional reactions to invasions of privacy because the act of invasion compromises an individual's sense of control.

People often find it difficult to rectify privacy violations that occur among individuals considered friends or with whom individuals have ongoing relationships. Relationship partners typically negotiate parameters for when and how privacy boundaries are drawn to include or exclude others. If people explicitly identify these boundaries and friends or intimates intentionally violate them, there is great potential for conflict because not only is privacy violated, but people also may feel that relational trust is breached.

More often than privacy violations or intrusions, individuals find themselves involved in privacy dilemmas with friends and families. Many times it is difficult to satisfactorily solve privacy dilemmas because sometimes the way people handle the problem complicates the issues. For example, suppose a teenage girl tells her older sister that she is pregnant, begging the sister not to tell their parents about the pregnancy. If the older sister keeps the secret, she may feel that she is betraying her parents. If she tells her parents, she betrays the younger sister's trust, likely creating emotional difficulties with her sister that would need to be addressed. Thus, selecting an apparent solution to a privacy dilemma may necessitate complex strategies of managing relationship conflicts as a result.

There are two kinds of privacy dilemmas. First, accidental privacy dilemmas occur when people inadvertently discover something hidden, for example, where keeping the discovery concealed can cause problems, but acting on the discovery may also cause difficulties. Second, there are confidant privacy dilemmas where people are told volatile information that might be difficult or impossible to keep confidential. For example, a woman learns she has a genetic predisposition to contracting breast cancer. To cope with the information, she confides in her sister-in-law, but makes the sister-in-law promise not to tell her husband, the confidant's brother. The sister-in-law finds herself in a quandary because she has loyalties to her brother as much as she feels committed to the trust given by her sister-in-law. In all, invasions, violations, and privacy dilemmas may challenge the way people are able to sustain their privacy needs.

Current Privacy Trends

Privacy is at the forefront of many contemporary human relationship matters. Two such issues are the ways in which modern technology affects the privacy of human interactions and privacy within families and other personal relationships.

Impact of Modern Technology on Privacy

The Internet has exploded with multiple avenues by which people manage relationships and communicate with each other. New technologies that facilitate social networking on the Internet have positive aspects in that they allow people to form and sustain relationships, but there is also the possibility that relationships can be undermined or exploited through these technologies. One of the struggles in using these technologies to initiate and manage relationships is the issue of privacy. For example, it is problematic for users of a site such as Facebook to assume that information is protected. Although there is sufficient evidence to show that information on these Web sites is far from secure—for example, prospective employers, family members, and others can access the information—some people act as if the information is secure and may post suggestive pictures from parties or highly disclosive information on their sites. In addition to social networking through the Internet, the use and abuse of other technologies also challenge people's sense of privacy. For example, the handy supermarket or drugstore cards that give discounts also track buying habits. There has been talk of providing these records to physicians and insurance companies so that they can monitor purchases and determine whether dietary restrictions are being followed. Likewise, the U.S. REAL ID Act of 2005 imposes new security, authentication, and issuance standards for information on state driver's licenses and state ID cards. These cards carry significant personal information on a magnetic strip that some privacy advocates argue allow for tracking the individual. Personal choices and preferences weigh the costs of losing privacy against the benefits of the technology.

Privacy, Families, and Personal Relationships

Privacy is integral in many ways to family life and personal relationships. Families teach children how to manage privacy by providing implicit or explicit rules that help them navigate choices about disclosing family information both internally and to outsiders. For example, parents illustrate their expectations for privacy when they caution their children not to talk about family finances outside of the home. At times, families are so private that they may be considered secretive. Secrets represent information that has a thick boundary around it with limited or no access to others. However, privacy is a more general term that represents degrees of protection of or access to information people believe they own and have the right to control. Some families have developed privacy rules granting more or less open access for disclosing both internally among members and externally to people outside the family, whereas other families may be more secretive and deny access. Adolescents test what privacy means to them, how much privacy they need, conditions for trusting others, and how to regulate access with others, including parents and siblings. Adolescents tend to gain a sense of emotional autonomy when they are able to choose whichinformationtheytelltheirparentsand which they keep private. When parents allow their adolescents to have the choice of revealing or concealing, the parent-child relationship improves, adolescents are able to grow more confident in their sense of self, and they feel less desire to be secretive with their parents.

Likewise, marital relationships tend to grow stronger when partners afford each other more latitude to judge when they should disclose something, how much to tell or keep private, and when to be open about issues. Although deciding under what circumstances to reveal and conceal private information can be challenging for couples, privacy regulation grants partners opportunities to consider which issues they want to disclose, how much, when, and how to do so. For children and couples, balancing personal needs for privacy with the need to share information and thereby foster a sense of connectedness is likely to make a difference in the state of a relationship.

When families successfully strike a balance between connectedness and autonomy, they develop positive ways of managing privacy. However, there are also examples of unsuccessful privacy management in which the balance of connectedness and autonomy goes awry. For instance, privacy management may be problematic when a wife going through a divorce intentionally discloses detrimental information about her ex-spouse to his boss. In this case, the ex-wife intentionally violates a privacy rule the couple used during their marriage. This kind of imbalance further complicates family life if children are involved. For instance, divorcing parents may tell children negative information about the other parent that can damage that parent-child relationship.

In a more egregious case, there are times when family members act as if they have the right to operate in complete autonomy. They devise privacy rules without the consent of other family members, although their actions implicate those family members. The web of silence that surrounds child sexual abuse, in which children may be told not to reveal abuse because of problems that might be created, illustrates this condition of dysfunctional privacy management. This darker side of privacy management shows that privacy regulation has both positive and negative aspects for relationships. Privacy management has positive outcomes when people are able to negotiate a mutually agreeable set of


privacy rules for defining access to information that accounts for their needs, needs of others with whom they have relationships, and the desired level of autonomy and connectedness. Neglecting negotiation of privacy rules and leaving coordination about privacy issues to chance may result in mistakes, inappropriate judgments about privacy boundaries, or dysfunctional outcomes.

Thus, a main key to better understanding privacy in a social world is recognizing the necessity of communicating about privacy needs, considering those needs in relation to desired connections with others, determining the expectations that individuals have for their privacy, and accounting for the fact that people define private information as belonging to them and as a matter of personal control.

See also

Beliefs About Relationships, Child Abuse and Neglect, Communication Skills, Internet and Social Connectedness, Internet Dating, Openness and Honesty, Secrets, Self-Disclosure

Further Readings
  • Altman, I.; Vinsel, A.; Brown, B. B. Dialectic conceptions in social psychology: An application to social penetration and privacy regulation. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 14 : 107-160., 1981.
  • Margulis, S. T. On the status and contributions of Westin's and Altman's theories of privacy. Journal of Social Issues 59 : 411-429., 2003.
  • Petronio, S. (2002). Boundaries of privacy: Dialectics of disclosure. New York: State University of New York Press.
  • Petronio, S. Translational endeavors and the practices of communication privacy management. Journal of Applied Communication Research 35 : 218-222., 2007.
  • Westin, A. (1967). Privacy and freedom. New York: Athenaeum.
  • Petronio, Sandra
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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