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).


Greetings, Personal Space, and Privacy


Greetings can be weird.

When you are new in town, greetings can put you in awkward situations because of unknown tacit conventions of the new cultural environment. I was once at a party in Montréal and the topic of greetings came up, each of us outsiders reporting on awkward moments where greetings went wrong in the new town. I had been living in Québec for a while and had noticed that people would often greet each other by offering their left cheek for a kiss. I had also noticed that people who came to Montréal from elsewhere in Canada were more likely not to kiss as a greeting, but rather shake hands or just wave, sometimes hug. In my experience until then, coming from São Paulo, I had seen most people offer the right cheek for a kiss when greeting someone, which sort of trained me to also do the same, allowing for a seamless greeting experience of the cheeks fitting nicely. But that habit was tricky, because in Québec, with people trained to offer the other side of their faces for the kiss, a polite greeting would very often almost turn into a kiss on the lips, which was not the desired goal! I had to retrain myself on how to greet people.

Meeting of Louis XIV, King of France and of Navarre, and Philip IV, King of Spain
Meeting of Louis XIV, King of France and of Navarre, and Philip IV, King of Spain, on the Isle of Pheasants in the Year 1660 by Charles Le Brun (1619–1690) and Edme Jeaurat (1688–1738)

Greeting conventions intersect with conventions of personal space, and for us humans they seem to change depending on a lot of variables: region of the world, social occasion, differences of gender, hierarchy, sometimes even by the mood of the people involved. A friend of mine recently told me about an international professional occasion gone weird. After a productive conversation with a potential client, she offered her business card, and when the two people were parting, she offered a firm handshake as a final greeting. The man with whom she had been conversing—older and from a different region of the world than the one she came from—at first shook her hand, but after a split second of hesitation, smiled awkwardly, and offered a hug in addition to the handshake. She was slightly surprised, but in the quickness of the moment, she responded to the hug as if it were normal. But she was left with a weird feeling because, even though hugging was normal where she came from, she knew from experience that this was not the case in the place where she was, where people rarely hugged each other in professional occasions.

Regarding this anecdote, I waver between an innocuous interpretation, and a more grudging one: was the man—being aware of the cultural difference between himself and my friend—trying to culturally adapt to the situation by offering a hug? Or did he misinterpret my friend’s upfront and confident demeanor as flirting, then try to take things from the professional realm into the personal with his awkward hug?

When we greet someone, we temporarily shrink the bodily distance that we normally keep between us and other people. This can put us on alert mode. In his book The Spaces Between Us, neuroscientist Michael S. A. Graziano compares the function of this buffer region around our bodies to bubble wrap: it is a sort of layer of protection that arises because some of our brain capacity is dedicated to constantly monitoring the region around our body. Graziano spent the 1990s studying peripersonal neurons and peripersonal space (which had been first described by Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues in the 1980s). According to Graziano, our bodies use different sensory inputs—vision, touch, audition, perhaps even smell—all in combination with our memory to keep track of the safety of our bodies, making sure that we maintain a minimal distance from potential threats to our wellbeing.

This is not unique to humans. Graziano credits biologist Heini Hediger as a pioneer on the study of proxemics on other animals. When Hediger was director of the Munich Zoo, he transformed cages into environments that attended to the needs of the animals that inhabited them:

More than just having territories, animals partition their territories. And this insight turned out to be particularly useful for zoo husbandry. An animal’s territory has an internal arrangement that Hediger compared to the inside of a person’s house. Most of us assign separate functions to separate rooms, but even if you look at a one-room house you will find the same internal specialization. In a cabin or a mud hut, or even a Mesolithic cave from 30,000 years ago, this part is for cooking, that part is for sleeping; this part is for making tools and weaving, that part is for waste. We keep a neat functional organization. To a varying extent, other animals do the same. A part of an animal’s territory is for eating, a part for sleeping, a part for swimming or wallowing, a part may be set aside for waste, depending on the species of animal. (Graziano 2018, p. 14)

As a historian interested in questions of bodily privacy, I am constantly confronted with the idea that privacy is a Western concept. People with more radical positions, who I have once in a while encountered in casual conversation, even go so far as to say that this purportedly Western concept is culturally imposed on other cultural environments of the world, where people are prone to live more communal lives and not worry about privacy so much.

But the need to protect one’s body from harm is not a cultural imposition from the West. It is a widespread need that spans across many species. I am left with an empirical question: what is the relationship between this buffer space around our bodies—which arises from the need to protect oneself from physical danger and which is present in many species beyond humans—and the need for a safety buffer zone around ourselves that has a more emotional nature, which we sometimes associate with the concept of privacy?

In my next post, I will talk about what I have been learning from Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on the social construction of emotions and put it in conversation with what I learned from Michael S. A. Graziano’s work on peripersonal space.

Graziano, Michael S. A. The Spaces between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.