Myth #45: Privacy is dead.
Paula Helm with Tobias Dienlin, Johannes Eichenhofer and Katharina Bräunlich

Myth: Privacy is dead. It fell victim to new socio-technical phenomena such as indiscriminate mass surveillance, the collapse of contexts, smartphones, wearables, social media, and the Internet of Things. People, however, don’t bother: They use services that are programmed to collect data, share vast amounts of data without reflection, and do not care if the become fully transparent.


Busted: Privacy has been declared dead – not only once, but multiple times. In 1874, The Times published The Abolition of Privacy. In 1909, The Washington Post stated that “only one hiding spot remains in the world. The south pole […].” In 1999, Scott McNealy (of Sun Microsystems) stated “you already have zero privacy – get over it”. In these publications – and many others – privacy was consigned to its grave because of some sweeping societal and technological changes such as the invention of the photo camera, or the Internet. Given this apparent inclination to die and the latest technological developments, privacy surely must be dead as a doornail?

Certainly not. The above mentioned shows primarily one thing: privacy is immortal. Indeed, enabled by the Internet, Big Data technologies and the pervasion of Smartphones and the Internet of Things, privacy is currently being commodified, sold, traded, exploited, neglected, and abandoned. However, to a varying extent that has always been the case. The abolition of privacy was never total. People have constantly found ways to separate themselves from each other, political entities, and corporate companies because they find in privacy a precondition for their individual autonomy, psychological integrity and their ability to build personal relationships.

It has been said that people today willingly give up their privacy – but that is not correct. Numerous empirical studies have shown that people do in fact act in the interest of privacy – also on social media. The more they are concerned about it, the less information they share. When doing so, however, they are confronted with increasingly difficult choices between adhering to powerful imperatives of sharing and connectivity on the one hand and their requirements for privacy on the other.

From a societal perspective, privacy today – probably even more than ever – also functions as a democratic force. When being called upon by political collectives and activists who struggle for their communicative autonomy, privacy is in fact being enacted as a social practice. (#14) This practice is crucial for the protection of a vivid democratic culture, where different opinions may co-exist and be deliberated upon. To preserve such culture, more support for Privacy enhancing technologies is needed – for example, anonymous Web browsers such as TOR – which already exist but require to be improved and established as default. (#17)


Truth: In some areas and especially for underprivileged people, privacy has become precarious. This is concerning. Privacy should not be turned into a luxury. Reacting to this, privacy currently receives much attention. Both in everyday life and in academia, privacy is indeed enjoying a renaissance as social practice and political value.


Source: Paula Helm, Johannes Eichenhofer, Reflektionen zu einem social turn in den privacy studies. In Martin Hennig et al.: Digitalität und Privatheit (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2019), 139-165; Tobias Dienlin, Miriam Metzger, An extended privacy calculus model for SNSs—Analyzing self-disclosure and self-withdrawal in a representative U.S. sample, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 21 (2016), 368–383,