Essay: Staying home – an opportunity for privacy or a threat to privacy?

‘Please stay home for us!’ Since the outbreak of the corona crisis, healthcare workers from across the world have been successful in crowding social media with this message to the public. Indeed, it seems sensible for the common good to follow their advice, at least out of necessity. Thinking about implications for privacy, as we constantly do at the Centre for Privacy Studies, it seems obvious to ask whether more time at home might not also have positive side effects in terms of privacy. To be sure, long before the modern era, the home has been defined as a private sphere, in opposition to the public square. Along the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, residential buildings have been gradually extended, isolated from each other and become places where an increasing number of people could benefit from certain legal rights to live undisturbed by the outside world (and to some extent even by their closest neighbours). Accordingly, privacy is sometimes described in terms of physical and mental autonomy or solitude, for example as ‘a state of being alone’.[1] With this background, one could imagine that the appeal to stay at home, apart from the apparent problems embedded in transforming it to a place of work, would resonate like a romantic invitation to an existence rich with valuable privacy, whether alone or with family.

Indeed, the corona realities liberate more time for ourselves or our families. But after several weeks almost entirely spent between the walls of our homes, does it really make sense to talk about life dictated by the virus as an existence beneficial for privacy? Although families get more time together – which can surely be valuable in many cases – children have had a rising need to get out. [2] In several countries, public playgrounds have been closed during the strictest lock-downs, and the Spanish government has only recently opened up for children under fourteen to leave their home one hour per diem. [3] As for people living by themselves, the order to stay at home tends to lead to isolation, at least after the first weeks of intense puzzling with crosswords and Netflix consummation. Mental disease, and even suicide rates, are expected to increase as a consequence of rising loneliness.[4]

When I first started to reflect upon how to approach the elusive topic of privacy, which surely escapes too narrow definitions, I was a bit sceptic to approaches that put too much emphasis on the individual’s inner life or a state of solitude. In my efforts to problematise such definitions, I was struck by a stimulating question formulated by Helen Nissenbaum, professor of information science at Cornell Tech: ‘Does a person stranded on an island really have privacy?’.[5] I still find it really difficult to motivate an affirmative reply on that question. Slightly reformulated, it seems to be quite applicable on the quarantine situation: Does a person locked inside his or her home really have privacy? Isn’t rather each family or household stranded on a desert island, although equipped with a decent WiFi-connection?

Professor Helen Nissenbaum (b. 1954)

Helen Nissenbaum has been highly influential in forming US legislation on informational privacy, which is partly based on her concept of ‘contextual integrity’ regarding public surveillance. The basic principle is that no information is private as such; laws must be formulated with regard to its social context. Together with the Canadian philosopher Michael Walzer’s concept ‘spheres of justice’, the framework of contextual integrity urges information gathering to define categories depending on the social norms of various contexts.[6] While Nissenbaum specialises in informational privacy, her heuristic questioning of whether there is reason to speak about privacy on a desert island with one single inhabitant implies that social relations might be an important factor when trying to understand what makes privacy valuable.

Considering privacy as a fundamentally relational phenomenon would suggest that valuable privacy would typically emerge as a response to social experience, in dynamic with others and the outside world. Indeed, this idea coincides pretty well with some creative approaches to study notions of privacy within the field of cultural history, for example as a protest against intrusion (from authorities or fellow citizens), an act of temporary withdrawal from social life or a need to cultivate more intimate relations.[7] This would not exclude the assumption that key moments of experienced privacy are taking place in more or less secluded physical spaces, or while the individual is fully occupied with his or her inner life. But it would encourage scholars in search of privacy to investigate how such moments are related to a social context (authoritarian or friendly) that provokes a need for privacy. It would also imply that long-term isolation might be a threat to privacy.  

If privacy is understood as a response to social experience rather than just in terms of being in one’s private sphere, the social isolation following on the plea to stay at home during the corona crisis may not contribute very well to evoke the values of privacy. But it does seem to suggest a clear-cut distinction between private and public responsibilities during the crisis: the private responsibility being to stay at home; the public responsibility to provide health care to those who need it. From a historical perspective, it might be most peculiar that people are encouraged to be passive. In emergency regulations for seventeenth-century Helmstedt and eighteenth-century Altona – two of the case cities that we are currently researching at PRIVACY – private responsibilities were generally of more active character. In order to prepare for the risk of fire, private people (Privat-Leuten) were ordered to be constantly on guard to provide the city’s functionaries with water and lighting, even in the middle of the night. Today we are barely asked for more than to provide ourselves (and our elderly) with food and toilet paper. Briefly, we are encouraged to fight the corona virus in our distinct private sphere. Having reached a high degree of specialisation and material welfare, today’s Western societies provide its citizens with both physical space and room for action to perform their private lives, in states of emergency as well as under more normal circumstances.


Extract from the fire regulation of seventeenth-century Helmstedt

One thing is sure. Setting our normal lives on hold and staying home gives us quite a unique occasion to ponder and experience what privacy is and what it isn’t. Does it make sense to us, under these extreme conditions, to regard privacy as a state of being alone or as an existence in our private sphere? Or does it rather correspond to our experience that long-term isolation, or the conditions in the private sphere, make it more difficult to experience privacy? We may take the opportunity to try to detect how ‘the corona human’ is seeking his or her privacy. Perhaps by borrowing a dog from the neighbour? It has been widely noticed that dog owners in areas with strict quarantine regulations have been lending out, or even renting out, their dogs to people desperate to get out.[8] The rising interest in dog-walks might satisfy many needs in terms of privacy. It might offer socially overwhelmed family members ‘a time of one’s own’. Obversely, individuals living in self-isolation can get an opportunity to escape their cells, which may help them to live through or, even better, benefit from further days in solitude. A third person might find the dog walking business a joyful way to outsmart the authorities and reconquer his or her autonomy. Perhaps these various efforts to leave one’s private sphere indicate that the state of emergency following on the corona virus is as much a threat to privacy as an opportunity for it? 


[1] E. g. Cambridge English Dictionary, ‘Privacy’. For a rich discussion on theories regarding privacy in relation to freedom and autonomy, see Beate Rössler, The Value of Privacy, Polity Press (Frankfurt am Main 2005) [2001], p. 43–76.




[5] Helen Nissenbaum, Privacy in context: technology, policy and the integrity of social life, Stanford Law Books (Stanford 2010), p. 71.

[6] Helen Nissenbaum, ‘Privacy As Contextual Integrity’, Washington law review, 79:1 (2004).

[7] See for example Barrington Moore, Privacy: Studies in Social and Cultural History, M. E. Sharpe, Armonk (New York 1984), p. xi, 71–73; Diana Webb, Privacy and solitude in the middle ages, Hambledon Continuum (London 2007), p. ix; Julie C. Inness, Privacy, Intimacy, and Isolation, Oxford University Press (New York 1992).


Public Morality or Privacy?

The Coronavirus crisis offers many points of reflection about privacy. My colleagues Anni Haahr Henriksen, Natália da Silva Perez, Natalie P. Koerner, and Natacha Klein Käfer have excellently dealt with many of them. One major issue is represented by the increasing governmental powers of surveillance. Arguing that surveillance will prevent the spread of the novel Coronavirus (COVID 19) governments are starting to use apps, drones, and other forms of technology that erode the citizen’s right to privacy.

It is not a novelty that technology is accused of going against the right to privacy. Ten years ago the founder of Facebook already stated that privacy is no longer a social norm. But now governments can use technology to control the movements of citizens. At the moment, apps and similar instruments seem to be restricted to health needs and time-limited. But what happens if governments choose to use them permanently and for other needs? For example, the police might determine whether the author of a crime was actually on the crime-scene. Public authorities might be able to know where we are and use this information in a trial (e.g. to sanction violations of the lockdown).

What happens if a piece of information about our ‘private’ life becomes public? What happens if public authorities use this information in a civil or criminal process?

These questions about the boundaries between public and private were, albeit in a different way, also discussed in the medieval and early modern period.  Judges might have had to decide whether to use information obtained outside of the trial, without the observance of processual rules, to decide a case. For example, suppose that Titius has claimed that Caius owed him a large sum of money by virtue of a contract concluded in Paris. The judge knows for sure that Caius was not in Paris at that time. The evidence against Caius is therefore false. But is the judge allowed to use this information?

Strictly speaking, processual rules did not allow that. Judges were only allowed to use evidence introduced by the parties. But judges were both legally and morally responsible for pronouncing the right decision. They were not only demanded to comply with processual rules, but also to obey their conscience. They answered for their acts before God. The salvation of the soul was a deep concern and a wrong decision could send the judge’s soul to hell.[1] The dilemma at hand, then, was whether the judge should base his decision on evidence or conscience.

The most influential Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) famously affirmed that the judge exercises a public function and for this reason should only use his knowledge as a public person, not what he knows as a private person. Procedural order must have rigid limits and what the judge knows privately, outside of the trial, must not be used. Aquinas distinguished divine judgment (God knows the truth) from human judgments, which are regulated by processual rules and aim to processual truth. [2] Following the path charted by Aquinas, the Spanish Catholic jurist and theologian Diego de Covarrubias y Leyva (1512-1577) stated that a judge could lawfully pronounce a sentence on the exclusive basis of the evidence, even if this was against what he knew privately.[3]

The great Lutheran jurist Johann Oldendorp (1486-1567) argued instead that the judge should avoid a lie.[4] Saying something that differs from what we know is a lie. If we know that someone is innocent, we have to act accordingly. Aquinas separated a conscience formed through a man’s personal knowledge from a conscience formed according to public judgment.[5] Oldendorp responded that the judge cannot have a double conscience. Conscience cannot be divided. A judge should draw on his conscience. Along the same lines, the Reformed theologian Markus Friederich Vendelin (1584-1652) affirmed that nobody is obliged to condemn an innocent or acquit a guilty publicly or privately (innocentem damnare et nocentem absolvere privatim vel publice, nemo tenetur).[6] What the judge knows in private should correspond to his public decision.

“Italy, Rome, Scala Santa: Passion of Christ sculpted by Ignazio Jacometti (1854). Jesus is showed to the crowd by Pontius Pilate.”

Early modern theologians and jurists also brought Pontius Pilate into this debate. Pilate knew that the high priests had handed Christ over to him out of jealousy. Should he have used this (private) information and acquitted Christ? According to the famous Wittenberg theologian, Friederich Balduin (1575-1627), Pilate knew that the high priests’ accusations were false and that he had condemned an innocent to death.[7] Some years later, Johann Steller (1641–?), a jurist from Jena, affirmed instead that Pilate should be excused because he was acting as a magistrate and therefore had to follow the accusations of the high priests. [8]

Conscience or evidence? The Helmstedt Lutheran theologian, Conrad Horneius (1590-1649) observed that the judge who ignores what he knows privately can be a liar and condemn an innocent to death. On the other hand, however, considering the life of a private man in a judgment could destroy processual order and lead to the dissolution of the state. [9] To Horneius, judicial powers should be regulated by processual rules that forbid judicial arbitrariness. These rules must have limits that safeguard private life.

Early modern scholars continued to debate this issue without providing a definitive answer. Nonetheless, their contribution can help us to reflect on the possible outcomes of the Coronavirus crisis. Overwhelming judiciary powers might sound morally promising: they might be instrumental in avoiding an unjust sentence or help to convict a criminal that otherwise would not be punished. But they can also lead to a devastating invasion of privacy. Which aspect should be prioritized? The moral necessity to pursue truth or the defense of our privacy?

Public authorities are starting to use apps that control our movements in order to prevent the spread of the novel Coronavirus. Through these apps, authorities are able to know about our location. Should this information become public or should it remain private? Should the law grant public authorities the right to use this information in a trial?

Our privacy is proportional to the powers the public authorities have to control us. An increase in their powers means a decrease in our liberty. By admitting these apps as legal means of proof, the states will build extensive surveillance systems. They will collect and use our geolocation data. On the other hand, the restriction on our liberty might also have positive effects. Digital surveillance might facilitate the repression of crimes and help judicial authorities to avoid the conviction of an innocent.

There is a tension between privacy and public morality. Privacy might prevent the public authority from pursuing the common good (in this case the public health). As such, it might be seen as a selfish right. But, then, why is it so important for us?

[1] James Q. Whitman, The Origins of Reasonable Doubt. Theological Roots of the Criminal Trial (Yale University Press, 2008); Wim Decock, ‘The Judge’s Conscience and the Protection of the Criminal Defendant: Moral Safeguards against Judicial Arbitrariness’ in Georges Martyn and others (eds.), From the Judge’s arbitrium to the Legality Principle (Duncker & Humblot, 2013), 69-94.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IIaIIae, q. 67, a. 2.

[3] Judit Bellér, ‘De insontibus non condemnantis. Conflitti di coscienza del giudice nella giurisprudenza tardo-medievale’ (1991) XXI, n.2, Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica, 299-300. Diego de Covarruvias y Leyva, Variarum ex iure pontificio regio, et caesareo resolutionum (Venetiis, 1565), lib. 1, 7-10.

[4] Johannes Oldendorp, De iure et aequitate disputatio forensis (Francofurti, 1611), 137–138.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IIaIIae, q. 67, a. 2.

[6] Markus Friederich Vendelin, Philosophia moralis, (Hardervici, 1654), 685.

[7] Friederich Balduin, Tractatus de casibus conscientiae (Wittenbergae, 1628), 1174.

[8] Johann Steller, Defensus Pontius Pilatus (Dresdae, 1674), tertium caput nn. 92–100.

[9] Conrad Horneius, Philosophiae moralis sive civilis doctrinae de moribus libri IV (Francofurti, 1633), 629.