“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
- Lewis Carroll Through the Looking Glass
Humpty Dumpty was partially right. His words may mean what he chooses to have them mean, but that is just his story. There is nothing inherent or eternal in the words (or what they represent). Granted that he has the power to say what he means, but others have the power to say what they mean, not to mention hearing what they choose to hear. Alice is the more interesting of the two when she wonders what the consequences are of making "words mean so many different things." For the understanding of secrecy and related phenomena those consequences are decidedly negative.
In the beginning there was the concept. And in beginning an inquiry into surveillance (Marx 2015), I argue that the failure to adequately define and differentiate terms can cloud and contort ethical and empirical understanding and lead to unnecessary conflict and unwise policies. Consider surveillance and privacy, terms central to understanding secrecy. What "are" they really? (Or better what do people mean when they use the terms)?
In popular and academic dialogue surveillance is often wrongly seen to be only the opposite of privacy—the former is seen as bad and the latter good. For example, social psychologist Peter Kelvin (1973) emphasized privacy as a nullification mechanism for surveillance. But Kelvin’s assertion needs to be seen as only one of four basic empirical connections between privacy and surveillance. Surveillance is not necessarily the dark side of the social dimension of privacy. Surveillance implies an agent who accesses personal data (whether through discovery tools, rules, or physical and logistical settings). Privacy, in contrast, involves a subject who can restrict access to personal data through related means. But both can be connected in a variety of ways.
Surveillance can obviously invade privacy—that’s what the fuss is all about (e.g., the employee in a lab testing for AIDS who sold information on positive results to a mortuary). Yet surveillance can also be the means of protecting privacy (biometric identification and audit trails, video cameras that film those with access to sensitive data). And privacy can also protect surveillance (undercover police who use fake IDs and call forwarding to protect their identity) just as it can nullify it (e.g., encryption, whispering, and disguises). Privacy for whom and surveillance of whom and by whom and for what reasons need to be specified.
Depending on how it is used, active surveillance can affect the presence of privacy and/or publicity. As nouns, the latter can be seen as polar ends of a continuum involving rules about withholding and disclosing, and seeking or not seeking, information. Thus, depending on the context and role played, individuals or groups may be required to engage, find it optional to engage, or be prohibited from engaging in these activities, whether as subjects or agents of surveillance and communication .
The rules applying to agents and subjects are in principle independent. When the rules specify that a surveillance agent is not to ask certain questions of (or about) a person and the subject has discretion about what to reveal, we can speak of privacy norms. When the rules specify that the subject must reveal the information or the agent must seek it, we can speak of publicity norms (or, better perhaps, disclosure norms). With publicity norms there is no right to personal privacy that tells the agent not to seek information, or that gives the subject discretion regarding revelation. Rather there is the reverse — the subject has an obligation to reveal and/or the agent to discover