Privacy I: Neuro-narratives and neo-privacy

The design of privacy enhancing technologies roughly seems to fall into two categories: negotiation support technologies that allow for social signaling or information restriction technologies that allow more control over specific pieces or flows of information. In both cases, the object of protection is arguably the information itself. But privacy is clearly about more than restricting access to information.

At least theoretically it seems possible to protect or enhance privacy by focusing not on the information, but the use to which it is put. I would argue that we can make a distinction between theoretical privacy frameworks that focus on information, and those that focus on narratives. I will admit that the distinction is somewhat unclear, but bear with me.

If the object of protection is not information about me, but my narrative about myself, we end up with a slightly different set of privacy problems, problems that are much more about data protection in a sense. And some scientific findings indeed seem to indicate that we are indeed hard-wired to understand ourselves and others through narratives. If this is the case, it seems privacy harms should be related to somehow disturbing or destroying those narratives. As stated in a recent blog post at

State-of-the-art neuro-imaging and cognitive neuropsychology both uphold the idea that we create our “selves” through narrative. Based on a half-century’s research on “split-brain” patients, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga argues that the human brain’s left hemisphere is specialised for intelligent behaviour and hypothesis formation. It also possesses the unique capacity to interpret – that is, narrate – behaviours and emotional states initiated by either hemisphere. Not surprisingly, the left hemisphere is also the language hemisphere, with specialised cortical regions for producing, interpreting and understanding speech. It is also the hemisphere that produces narratives.

Gazzaniga also thinks that this left-hemisphere “interpreter” creates the unified feeling of an autobiographical, personal, unique self. “The interpreter sustains a running narrative of our actions, emotions, thoughts, and dreams. The interpreter is the glue that keeps our story unified, and creates our sense of being a coherent, rational agent. To our bag of individual instincts it brings theories about our lives. These narratives of our past behaviour seep into our awareness and give us an autobiography,” he writes. The language areas of the left hemisphere are well placed to carry out these tasks. They draw on information in memory (amygdalo-hippocampal circuits, dorsolateral prefrontal cortices) and planning regions (orbitofrontal cortices). As neurologist Jeffrey Saver has shown, damage to these regions disrupts narration in a variety of ways, ranging from unbounded narration, in which a person generates narratives unconstrained by reality, to denarration, the inability to generate any narratives, external or internal.

Combining neurology and narratology seems to be a promising theoretical opening for privacy research.

Here is a possible way to think about privacy, then: privacy infringements are acts such that they significantly degrade my ability to create, disseminate and uphold my own narrative. That narrative then in turn decides autonomy, control, psychological and economic damage that I suffer. Narratology, the science studying narratives, argues that there is a difference between stories and discourse in general, the elements and the order in which they are retold (or told at all). This difference, in Russian formalism known as fabula and sujet, the personal data and the identifying narrative, perhaps, in privacy research, could be fruitfully studied much more in-depth. Maybe it is only relevant to discuss privacy in terms of the fabula, the order of retelling the raw elements of the sujet.

If I want to tell the story that I am a solid upstanding citizen, it will hurt my story if you reveal that I was in fact convicted for heinous crimes a couple of years ago. Your revelation is less problematic if I am trying to tell the story that I have served my time, but am still carrying the guilt of those crimes. We could argue that in one case there is a harm, in the other there is no harm. The narrative I am telling decides, then, the existence and extent of any privacy harm.

But, wait: the question then seems to be why I should have an unbounded right to my own narrative, right? Should I be the only one to decide what stories are told about me? That sounds dangerous and seems to threaten free expression.

The question about what constitutes a privacy harm in a narrative framework, then, needs to be a question about what stories we should be able to tell about ourselves and others. If, indeed, narratives are how we understand ourselves and others, then narratives need to play a much larger role in research about privacy and privacy enhancing technologies.

A corollary to this thought is that technologies that allow us to tell our stories are in fact privacy enhancing, since they reinforce our stories and narratives. Blogs, micro blogs and social networks are narrative tools.

Rather than seeing these tools as threats to privacy we may need to understand them as potentially very powerful privacy enhancing technologies. It all becomes a question of if the narrative prerogative is allocated in them in a way that is conducive to a balanced telling of your story, or the story that you identify with.