Privacy Today

Both Hillary Clinton and former University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise have been criticized for using personal email accounts for public business, which raises some intriguing issues about twenty-first century privacy.

Although Clinton’s intentions are perhaps less explicit, Wise’s seem to have included a desire to maintain confidentiality even though the official university position had been that personal accounts, when used for university business, are still subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations. These regulations in Illinois have nothing explicit about personal email accounts, but a 2012 state appellate ruling upheld an attorney general opinion that FOIA does apply to personal devices and machines in instances of official business. 

I once had a colleague publish an excerpt of a personal email I had sent to him without my consent or even knowledge until someone slipped the article beneath my office door. When I confronted him, he insisted that such behavior was acceptable because he had omitted any identifiable information. However, a lawyer told me that, at that time, these issues were far from settled and that I’d be in a stronger position by including an expectation of privacy in my signature line, which I started doing, at least for work email.

Such expectations seem more and more quaint in this digital age. Dave Eggers’s (2013) The Circle is disturbing in part because it narratively argues for an alternative understanding of privacy. By the end of the novel, readers have experienced a shift in Mae’s perspective that redefines privacy from an individual right to a social violation. Anyone who insists upon privacy, this book seems to suggest, is preventing others from accessing and understanding human experience.

This perspective is ambiguously disturbing. Some, such as artists, are seen as people whose experiences and perspectives can offer insight and even wisdom, so these could be a social good. While they surely shouldn’t relinquish the choice whether to share these, should, or even could, we consider any decision to keep them private as neglecting or even violating social obligations?

Perhaps we should distinguish between the experiences and perspectives of individuals or artists and those, such as public officials, who are elected or paid to do public work, but shouldn’t these people have the opportunity for private communications as a part of their public duties?

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