1privacyPrivacy is the right to be left alone, or how would you describe it in a few words? It is the freedom to decide whether you want to communicate, what you want to communicate and with whom.

This freedom of the individual not to communicate ends where community starts, since it arises from communication. Every community has rules which determine what needs to be communicated in order to participate in the community. Consequently, privacy describes the boundary between individual and community, and digital media gave rise to a completely new concept of community as parts of communication shift out of direct control.

A website with personal messages can be received by a billion people, making it a huge communication system that puts the world at its users’ fingertips. Thus, society and communication have become very complex in all their correlations, as ordinary persons can have thousands of communication partners: Some they know personally, some occur as an institution, and some are not even really noticed by them.

Much of that information allocation is voluntary and out of a desire to recognize social rules and contribute to the community. Unfortunately, some are not by choice, which makes it the more oppressing as current communications technologies can't support here. Thus, today only social rules impede that the privacy of the individual gets completely abolished.

This newly gained possibility of unlimited communication, however, is still limited to the active and conscious use of technology. It means that we might still realize that we use communication technologies and disclose information about ourselves, although we don’t really know what happens with it then. With the vision of invisible technologies that are surrounding us pervasively and which communicate autonomously with each other, this last vestige of privacy is threatened to disappear in the long run.

A way has to be found that draws the fine line between individual and community in a ubiquitous communications network, if the right to be left alone should be preserved. Though, such a right isn’t only the decision about what kind of information the individual wants to reveal, but also communication from the outside in as well – meaning the freedom to receive no information at all.

Of course, we do not really see a big problem here today, as communication media can be turned off easily to make us unreachable - just as if someone talks to us on the street, and we can pass by silently, visual communication in public space is linked to media that we can look at or not. If we don’t want to see and talk to anyone, we just go home, close the door and turn off all communication devices.

But in case we want to communicate, unwanted disruptions often mix in uninvitedly. We would like to use email and SMS, for instance, but are annoyed by the illicit advertising messages that spam us. Such nuisances will certainly increase exponentially, if we do not only have one mobile phone or computer, but our whole environment becomes a communication medium with hundreds of possible communication channels at hand and around us.

People already complain today about information overload that is assailing them, even though it is mostly just passive. There is the threat of a perception collapse, if it is fully active - when messages detach from certain places and media reaches us constantly via the next best way available.

We have to find a solution in the future for the problem of deciding what information we want to reach us, as the right to be left alone must continue to exist - even if more communication technologies will surround us in an increasingly digitized world.

By Daniela La Marca