A bird’s eye view of privacy

 A bird’s eye view of privacy

Prof. Mette Birkedal Bruun, Director of the Danish National Research Foundation’s Centre for Privacy Studies shares her expectations of RAID Digital, and how history can help with today’s challenges


How do you see the research in historical privacy concerning present-day privacy policy?

While history may not hold direct lessons for the present, historical research may help us to see how our perception of privacy and the boundaries we construct around it are embedded in contexts that are defined by a wide and complex array of factors.

Since I am a church historian, my research is specifically attuned to historical value and belief systems, and applying this particular perspective to our own time heightens our attention to the inherent, but sometimes not acknowledged, values surrounding present-day understandings of privacy. These need not be religious values, but could be values concerning political, economic, social or existential structures and foundations. With the Privacy Studies Journal, a new open access research journal the first issue of which appears later this year, we aim to draw such lines between past and present, across cultures and across research fields.


What are your expectations of discussions at RAID Digital on May 4?

I am fascinated by the broad scope of RAID, and the conference promises to honour this breadth. I am particularly interested in Panel 1: Global Perspectives on Creating Balance in a Precarious World and Panel 3: Artificial Intelligence in Action, since they indicate the need to relate perceptions, regulations and systems related to privacy to human conditions and concerns with cultural differences, but also seem to remind us of the ethical imperative. I am concerned with a comprehensive view and a view that never forgets the human component, and these two panels seem to me to point in that direction.

However, I am also expecting and hoping to be provoked and challenged! No matter how annoying and uncomfortable, it is always clarifying and sobering to meet new perspectives and to be forced to see things from other angles. And I am sure that the RAID conference will provide that as well.


Different regions, cultures and jurisdictions have differing attitudes towards privacy and personal identity, but technology transcends cultures and borders. How can a historical perspective cast light on how policymakers and regulators might approach the challenges of safeguarding privacy online in a way that is culturally appropriate?

This is as difficult as it is necessary. At the Centre for Privacy Studies, we are trying to reach a research-based understanding of whether privacy is a Western concept or a global phenomenon. Probably the answer is: both! – because research in the Humanities and the Social Sciences tend to yield such answers, and they are as necessary as they are frustrating. The value of this study is, however, that on our way to this inconclusive answer, we work to try to understand cultural differences by dissolving our own culturally instilled understandings of what privacy is and is not.

To my mind, a culturally appropriate approach to privacy needs to go by way of such dissolution which is a scary endeavour, since we are anchored and safe in our culturally instilled values and perceptions. But history and historical research help us to see that things are different in other periods and other cultures, and this is an ever-vital reminder also for our present-day.


What do you think the historical layer can add to the current industry discussion?

History helps us to complicate things! We tend to want simple scenarios, and we tend to strip off complicating factors that do not call for yes/no answers and which do not have clear-cut technical solutions. However, often such complicating factors have to do with the human component: the behaviours, values, needs and wants of human beings and the cultural, social and ecological circumstances that condition them.

Because history gives us a bird’s eye view of societies and cultures and the human beings that inhabit them, it reminds us of the necessity to look at phenomena such as privacy in a more comprehensive and holistic way. It requires mediation and will come with a considerable collaborative complication of processes and business models, but I do think that a historical perspective can add a dimension that makes technical solutions more ethically sound and more relevant for more people. A societally conscious industry will want this.