When we talk about privacy these days, then it is, in most cases, in the context of ever increasing surveillance measures. And Wolfgang Sofsky, former professor of sociology and nowadays a private scholar, devotes a whole chapter in his Privacy: A Manifesto in order to make it clear to the reader, how pervasive these techniques have meanwhile become. However, he does not stop in the context of privacy and surveillance. Rather, he is developing a perspective on privacy which would still be of interest even if there were no surveillance at all.
Chapters 2 and 3 and 4 prepare the reader for the following suggestions. In the second chapter Sofsky discusses the relationship of power and privacy. There, he suggests that the private realm is not only endangered in dictatorships but in a democracy containing a strong state as well: the power of the state tends to be growing further and further in oder to regulate and control the life of its citizens better and better. In the third chapter Sofsky gives a short retrospective of how the issues concering privacy were handled in past centuries. In chapter 4 Sofsky is discussing the relationship of the relevant concepts in his manifesto: "private", "public" and "freedom". Even if "private" and "public" are somewhat murky concepts, and even if there is no sharp line which divides the private and the public space, there is according to Sofsky something to be said about it: the private serves as protection against the impositions of the public, against incapacitation, expropriation, compulsion and paternalism, in short: against loosing one's self-determination and freedom. Sofsky suggests at the same time that privacy is rooted in the physical constitution of a human: one's fellow human beings have to be kept at bay because they can become dangerous all time due to one's own fragility. However, that does not mean that threats are only coming from the other side of the wall if we adopt Sofsky's picture of a sharp and fortified line dividing the public and the private. But within the private sphere, e.g. the family, there may as well arise temptations to perforate it and let the public in. This can be justified, but, as Sofsky argues, only as long as nobody is harmed or deprived of his freedom.
The strongest chapters of the book, chapters 5, 6 and 7, start with a discussion of the relationship between human integrity and dignity. Sofsky writes: "A person's integrity does not begin with the recognition of his independance or his conscience. Its core is not found in a person's dignity or honor but rather in his being left alone. Before the inviolability of the person stands the inviolability, the untouchability of the skin." (p.36) Thus, the body is the starting point of Sofsky's considerations and constitutes the most fundamental and valuable part of the private sphere. Around it, personal space is located, so to speak as a (flexible) protection layer, invisible but nevertheless present: People, for instance, are feeling the more uneasy the more people get into an elevator and have to divide the available space amongst themselves. Private spaces serve as an additional protection layer. Only there, people are able to take off their armour worn in daily life and live their life without the impositions of the public. Private spaces can thereby be spaces of very different kind: houses, flats, rooms, (closed) telefon boxes and even cars.
In the chapters 8, 9 and 10, the last ones of his book, Sofsky tries to extend the realm of the private even further. There, he is discussing issues of private property, (personal) information and its provision as well as problems concerning the freedom of thought. Just regarding freedom of thought it becomes obvious that Sofsky conceives the state or the private economy as privacy's potential enemies. Indoctrination, be it religious or media-related or of still an other kind, and educational efforts are a serious danger to the privacy of the individual as well, because they can very easily be the means of thought control which "does not seek to find out what people think but rather to impress on them what they can think." (p.109)
Several points of criticism could be made. First and most important of all, Sofsky has a very negative picture of (current) states unless they are only concerned with the provision of protection and security. But it is not clear at all why for instance education coordinated by the state, e.g. in schools, should not have at least some positive effects, like teaching the pupils to think autonomously. Instead, Sofsky often suggests that a kind of indoctrination is lurking there which tries to destroy the sphere of private thoughts. Second, the relationship of freedom and privacy is obscure. Sofsky sometimes writes that privacy is a kind of freedom (e.g. "Like all freedoms, privacy is first of all negative." (p.30)) and sometimes that privacy is a means to secure some kind of freedom ("Privacy is the citadel of personal freedom" (p.30)) or is something similar to freedom ("Privacy...like freedom...is a value [...]." (p.34)). Despite those and other shortcomings reading his book is nevertheless recommendable for privacy scholars and people who are interested in privacy-related work and are somewhat familiar with philosophical/sociological terminology. This is not to a small part due to Sofksy's clear and precise language which shows the reader the issues concerning privacy forcefully. But above all, Sofsky's fundamental argumentation, starting from the body of an individual, is a valuable contribution to the discussion concerning the relationship between privacy and surveillance. It can serve as a stable fundament for discussions concerning the value of privacy which often only fall back on legal rules and their interpretation.
© 2009 Georg Koppen
Georg Koppen is a PhD-student at the University of Rostock and currently writing his PhD thesis on issues concerning freedom and surveillance.