Q&A: How Do You Define "Privacy Harm"?

In debates about online privacy, one question always seems to crop up: What’s the harm? How can harm come from a breach of privacy if there’s no fraud and the information isn’t used for, say, identity theft? When the only thing that seems to be wrong is a feeling of “creepiness,” what should that be called?

Ryan Calo, senior research fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University Law School, has been trying to answer that question. This summer, he released a draft of a paper titled the Boundaries of Privacy Harm that is set to be published in the Indiana Law Journal next year.

Calo spoke with Digits about privacy harm and how it applies in the digital world. His condensed comments are below.

Why do we need to define privacy harm?

If you look at regulations of abortion or sodomy or contraception, the Supreme Court looked at these as privacy issues. But a lot of people would say you can’t regulate sex between two people of the same gender, not because it happens in private but because it’s an equality issue. … In order to surface these values, we need to draw a line and say that not everything is privacy.

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