Prying Apart Privacy: Who Needs It?

Want help with your hiring? It's easy. Enter your information below, and we'll quickly reach out to discuss your hiring needs.


Pryvacy | Image: Michael Moffa

In a world of ever-increasing surveillance and information penetration capabilities and demands, any insistence on your part that you have a professional or personal right to privacy of some kinds is increasingly falling on deaf, yet closely listening ears, or on watching eyes.

For example, the city of Chongqing, China is installing more than 500,000 street cameras, at a cost of more than $2.6 billion.

Challenges to and changes in the concept and practice of privacy are cropping up on a daily basis. Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, maintains that the Facebook generation does not conceptualize or worry about privacy in traditional ways. To the extent that Facebook and LinkedIn are now standard tools of your trade, you are wittingly or otherwise participating in this rapid transformation of the understanding, practice, valuation and possible demise of privacy.

A multifaceted notion, the right to privacy comprises all of the following:

  • The right to not have to share; the right to exclusive and individual ownership or control, e.g., private property, private joke
  • The right to deny, control or limit institutional, organizational or public access and appropriation, e.g., as in your sweat pants at an airport, your medical files or your client list
  • The right to seclude or hide, e.g., to occupy a beach hideaway for two,  or your candidate reports, away from prying eyes

Note the key components of control of access, of observation and of use.

Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear?

Can it be that those who are watching you, such as online ad trackers and municipal camera crews, are right—that you really don’t need much, if any, privacy,  if you are one of the “good guys” and are not up to mischief? After all, if you have nothing to hide, and are not involved in national security, pre-patent trade protection, client or confessional confidentiality and state secrets, why the need for professional and personal privacy and it’s twin, secrecy? (The obvious reply is that since information is knowledge and knowledge is power, those who know what is secret and private in your life can manipulate, control, obstruct and exploit you. Yet, somehow, many people seem to think that everything will be fine if you, rather than someone else or they, have no dubious intent.)

A Short History of Privacy

Other critiques of the need for privacy are historical: One argument is that “privacy” is not only not a universally recognized right, it is also not a universally established concept, e.g., it has taken the Chinese and the Japanese nearly a century to translate the concept linguistically and culturally—the Japanese, for example, having been forced to import the concept and associated practices as “puraibashii” (“poo-rye-ba-shee”).

A second historical critique maintains that privacy is like technology, fashion and sports, which gradually trickle down from the top of the socio-economic waterfall to the masses below, e.g., the  automobile, the popular sports jacket, tennis and the bustle. On this view, privacy was, in the beginning, an invention and prerogative of the rich and powerful—usually priestly, landed, otherwise wealthy or conqueror classes who used the privacy of the temple, the monastery, Latin, the castle, the manor or the board room as a tool of mass-mystification and social control, lest the unwashed, overworked masses were to get a good look at their masters’ and rulers’ feet of clay and unspecial (and not rare in)humanity, and then possibly resist, if not revolt.

Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?

Moreover, some concepts of privacy are the exact reverse of ours. For example, the sociobiologist David Barash describes, in his utterly engaging, sad to say out-of-print book, The Whisperings Within, a relatively isolated Amazon tribe that believes eating should be absolutely private and never occur in view of others, because it is somehow obscene. On the other hand, among the same tribe, sex in public is fine. (This actually makes good sense if you consider that all eating is shameful murder of some living thing, whereas human intimacies are generally a celebration of life. But that reasoning is for another time and another culture to pursue.)

Your Privacy Concerns

Consider the forms of “privacy” that you, as a recruiter, have until recently wanted and had: private client and contact lists, private conversations with clientele, private reports about clientele, private home phone number, private emails, private home life, private medical records, private company parking space, private desk, private toilet stall at the office, private pay report, private office, private schooling for your kids, private transportation for the job commute and appointments, private walks and lunches with clients and candidates.

Privacy is desired for a number of reasons, mostly related to avoiding (with examples):

  • Self-incrimination (through police  or government wiretap)
  • Arrest (after incrimination)
  • Litigation (for clientele libel or slander )
  • Firing (for  getting caught downloading “Girls Gone Wild” videos at work)
  • Social Embarrassment (from being overheard mocking a client’s speech quirks or mannerisms)
  • Moral censure (for having a lie discovered, or for overheard insensitivity to a colleague in rehab or political incorrectness)
  • Defamation (caused by any of the above)
  • Victimization (through others’ knowing your computer passwords and exploiting that opportunity)
  • Retaliation (for complaints, slander, etc.)
  • Loss of freedom (inhibition of clientele or colleague conversations through being overheard,  forced conformity because of workplace cameras, loss of free time caused by access to your home phone number)
  • Manipulation (by a job candidate who deep-Googled you, found out your  otherwise unpublicized involvement with a certain charity and then casually and coincidentally mentions  the importance of that charity in the scheme of things)
  • Competition (A computer hacker gets his hands on your private client, job and/or candidate lists and sells them to rival recruiting firms as his own; some interloper hits on your date during your picnic together.)
  • Loss of personal or institutional mystique (as an applicant sneaks a peak at your open email and sees what is there beside “professional” communications)
  • Trivialization (as  others discover how commonplace your professional “secrets” of success are)
  • Loss of opportunities (if other recruiters know yours)
  • Imposition of burdens (having to hunt for company parking space)
  • Discrimination (Your released medical file contains details of past treatment for OCD, substance abuse, etc.)
  • Trespass (Somebody’s car is in your private parking space at work or parked on your lawn.)
  • Loss of control (Rivals know your company’s secret recruiting plans and proceed to somehow obstruct you; or if your routine use of “good cop-bad cop” tactics with candidates becomes common knowledge among applicants, e.g., “I’d love to get you a higher salary, but the client has quashed the idea.”)

Whittling Down the List

Each one of your claims to a right to privacy is probably important to you for one or more reasons on the foregoing list.

Now think of which of the risks listed above you are most concerned about avoiding for professional reasons, in your role as  a recruiter.  Subtract those concerns that are unlikely in the extreme to ever apply to you, e.g., self-incrimination, litigation, arrest and firing. Now also subtract those that do not apply to you, because you are a decent, thoughtful,  ethical, politically correct, unmanipulative and otherwise inoffensive person—both professionally and privately. In other words, assume you are a saint.

So, what’s left?

  • Social Embarrassment
  • Loss of freedom
  • Victimization
  • Manipulation
  • Competition
  • Loss of personal or institutional mystique
  • Loss of opportunities
  • Imposition of burdens
  • Discrimination
  • Trespass
  • Loss of control

Now, further assume that you are extraordinarily careful and circumspect—so no hacker, eavesdropper or office visitor is going to gain access to any private or confidential argument. Of course, this can never be guaranteed, but it can be closely approximated.

Now the list looks like this:

  • Social Embarrassment
  • Loss of freedom
  • Competition
  • Loss of personal or institutional mystique
  • Imposition of burdens
  • Trespass
  • Loss of control

Allowing for the extreme relativity of social embarrassment, as demonstrated by the reversed, not to say backward, Amazonian tribe Barash described, you should be able to transcend the cultural myopia that makes overheard toilet flushing embarrassing. As far as personal or institutional mystique is concerned, if it can be compromised by the pedestrian facts, then why not simply be truthful and let the mundane chips fall where they may. Your business may continue to thrive without any such priestly and fictitious professional or personal mystique, especially since lots of businesses do very, very well with none whatsoever, e.g., every corner gas station.

So now the list of prima facie reasons for privacy has been whittled down to these:

  • Loss of freedom
  • Competition
  • Imposition of burdens
  • Discrimination
  • Trespass
  • Loss of control

The Perfection of “Perfect Information” and “Perfect Competition”

Consider competition.  What is so bad about competition—especially competition with no secrets? Look what open-source code has done for the modern world. Besides, in an ideal capitalist economy, to which the majority of businesses presumably still at least pay lip service, money is to be made, invested, spent and saved in accordance with the rules of a game of “perfect information”. That is to say, in a pure capitalist economy, no one or group has a monopoly on information for very long, e.g., regarding levels of supply and demand, stock news releases, crop failures or successes, transportation routes, prices or costs—essential for ensuring the free, fair and unfettered flow of goods and services. The same logic should apply to job listings and resume databases.

As for the imposition of burdens, even with a loss of some kinds of privacy, e.g., the privacy of your home and home phone number, with some deft maneuvering, you should be able to insulate yourself from after-hours calls and surprise summons to weekend job meetings.

Nothing to Fear Except Force and Fraud?

Loss of freedom through pressure to conform or keep up appearances? A libertarian would argue that you can and should say and do what you will, so long as you do not initiate or advocate the first use of force or fraud. Accordingly, the libertarian would argue, you don’t have to hide behind a barrier of privacy. If others are made uncomfortable by whatever you reveal or display, it’s their problem, so long as you are not initiating or advocating the use of force or fraud. Of course, it helps a lot if they follow the libertarian rule and do not inflict force or fraud on you because of what they overhear, e.g., “Bikers could use a hot bath”, whispered to a companion at a Hells Angels roadside diner haunt. Ditto for “My HR manager would be very good at hiring kamikaze pilots.”—overheard by that manager.

Private Information vs. Private Property

That leaves only two privacy concerns on the original list to address: discrimination and trespass. Discrimination on the basis of access to “your”private personal personnel medical files is the tougher of the two to prevent, since those records are only “yours” in the sense of identifying you, unlike your pin number, password, parking space or lawn, which are in some real sense your “private property”. This is a fundamental distinction in any discussion of privacy: private (“personal and identifying”) information vs. private (“exclusively owned or controlled”) property. Unless it’s private in the second sense, the information won’t remain hidden and private in the first sense very long.

Increasingly, debates and codes related to privacy are treating these two concepts as distinct, in frameworks as light and heavy as Facebook and airport scanning. Given this growing divergence, it is your responsibility to identify and negotiate your personal proportions of each of these and their interrelationships, at work and at home—especially if your home has become an office annex.

For Starters

If some of the foregoing argumentation seems glib or slick, you’ve been reading this closely, for the intent throughout has been to trigger your first thoughts about your privacy, not your last ones. Nonetheless, much of the argumentation herein should withstand even closer scrutiny.

In the meantime, you can take comfort in knowing there is at least one clear conclusion to be reached:  There is at least one violation of your right to keep some things private that, unlike hacked passwords or leaked medical files and client lists,  you can immediately detect.

When someone takes your private parking space.

Read more in Employee Rights

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).