Privacy Without Power: What Privacy Research Can Learn from Surveillance Studies

Alice E. Marwick

Surveillance & Society

(In)Equity, Digital Infrastructures

Communication Studies, Knowledge-Production, Social Media

You can’t understand privacy without understanding power.

When we think about “privacy,” we often think of an individual’s privacy, her individual right to privacy, and individualized strategies for retaining control over private information. This is an ahistorical way of thinking that ignores the ways privacy violations are patterned in ways traceable to marginality and domination. Populations identified as “dangerous,” like Muslims after 9/11 or transgender individuals in the current political climate are disproportionately surveilled, their privacy deemed violable in the interests of other people’s safety.

Unfortunately, as Marwick shows in this paper, such issues of systemic issue are rarely addressed at global conferences about privacy like IAPP and SOUPS. Instead, techno-optimism rules the day, complete with sales booths offering the newest products individuals might use to protect themselves. Privacy isn’t an individual problem for which individual solutions that fiddling with privacy settings will help: privacy violations are gendered (most stalkerware is used against women by current or former male partners) and they are raced (as Black and brown communities in the U.S. are all too aware). Conceptualizing privacy without power is simply inadequate in the current moment.