The right to be let alone by yourself

Bart van der Sloot

The right to be let alone....
by yourself

I have won like a kind of mini-Nobel prize, a stipend which allows me to devote my energy and time between 2021-2025 fully to a research project called: The right to be let alone ... by yourself. The highly prestigious stipend called Veni (after a Veni stipend, you can also apply for a Vidi and a Vici grant) was awarded by the Dutch Scientific Organisation. A classic definition of the right to privacy is that it is the right to be let alone by others. In this project, I suggest that in the 21th century, the problem is not only that others have access to your data, but also that they have data about you and act upon those data, while you may want to remain oblivious about such information. This page will contain the output of the project as I go along.

The summary of my proposal was as follows:

Privacy is predominantly understood as the right to be let alone by others. It protects an individual against intrusions upon the private sphere by governments, companies and fellow citizens and focusses on the right to withhold them access to one’s data, body or home. In the data-driven environment, the fact that others may have access to personal information will only be one concern; equally important, a person will be confronted with unwanted information about herself. A photo may revive an aspect of her past (an experimental gothic phase; an anorexic period); a tech company may infer a person’s early pregnancy even before she does and inform her through pregnancy-related advertisements; etc.

Being frequently confronted with information about one’s past, present and future fundamentally challenges an individual’s capacity to form and maintain an identity, which depends on the capacity to select and prioritise information about oneself. My hypothesis is that although privacy is aimed at safeguarding identity-formation, the current legal paradigm is insufficiently equipped to address the new types of information-confrontations that emerge in the data-driven environment.

Can privacy be reconceptualised so that it also provides protection from, and the possibility to integrate narrative-disruptive information about oneself and if so, what would it entail? Combining legal doctrinal methods with interdisciplinary normative analysis, I will conceptualise

(1) identity-formation as writing a personal narrative,

(2) the challenges to identity-formation in the data-driven environment,

(3) the protection offered under the current legal paradigm and

(4) to what extent a reformulation of privacy could ameliorate the individual’s capacity to engage in identity-formation.