I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concepts: privacy, confidentiality, secrecy and silence. Clearly each has different meanings and connotations. Privacy is cultural – what parts of our bodies are private, under what conditions – what parts of our lives or information about us are private, under what conditions. So what about privacy in the U.S.? How about privacy between individuals and “the government”?
I recently heard a man from “Animal Control” ask a dog owner for her name, address, phone number, and date of birth. What did her date of birth have to do with her dog or even identifying her? He had a radio with him and was able to verify all that information and more. It seems that choosing to own a dog means one more situation in which “one’s information” is given to the government.
Airlines are suggesting “smart cards” for frequent travelers who are “good people” – who’ve been “cleared”. It’s a little like “taking the Fifth” (exercising your Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate yourself). By not answering you imply your guilt – if you don’t have a smart card you imply your own culpability.
I sarcastically suggested to my friend that perhaps we should all have numbers tattooed onto our arms. She replied that a bar code might be more efficient. That same weekend I heard a discussion on the radio about implanting computer chips into people so that medical information would be available “in case something happened”. Wow, we’re back to dogs again. Not only will we all carry smart cards and picture ID but we’ll all be implanted with chips in case “we lose our way”. No, I’m not dashing out to get implanted with a chip. It wouldn’t go with my Birkenstocks.
Speaking of chips, have you heard that the new Microsoft programs include as a part of their license agreement that Msft can “access the information on your hard drive” so as to give you updates without having to trouble you. Surely this is about more than our convenience, consumer cost-savings, or safety from terrorism (another rich topic). So much for privacy.
Privacy, of course, is related to confidentiality – a cornerstone of our professional ethics. Confidentiality is about limiting the use of information gained through a professional relationship. This relationship is not one of equal power – the power of knowledge. The professional knows about the client without the client knowing about the professional. Patients do not know about the “medical issues” of doctors (or any of their personal issues for that matter). Deaf clients do not know about the “private issues” of interpreters.
Secrecy, on the other hand is about control. Thus it is inversely related to privacy and confidentiality. Privacy is about my right to control information about me. Confidentiality is about professionals respecting that right to privacy. Secrecy, on the other hand, is about withholding information from … those who want/need to know. Typically it is authority withholding information from those in their charge. It may be benign – parents keeping secret the gifts they plan to give for the child’s birthday – or it may be malicious. Clearly, this topic of secrecy has implications for our public lives. Censorship is not always blatant, nor is it always imposed from the outside. Journalists fearing a loss of their job, editors fearing rebuke from publishers or publishers fearing a loss of advertising, all self-censor.
Interpreters as professionals are sometimes guilty of withholding information. It’s not practicing secrecy but it’s about control. On the surface, this control over information seems more passive than active. We sponsor workshops for ourselves and practice an arcane way of talking, using words like locative, classifier and deixis, surely necessary to the development of a profession. We limit access to this discourse by sending (not so) subtle messages about how welcome deaf people are in our gatherings. We choose to talk/use voice in the halls and select music for our evening’s entertainment.
Controlling or limiting information is a way of disenfranchising and silencing people. Without the information, the details and the language to talk about it, we can’t discuss the issues intelligently. This is true of ourselves as citizens, as professionals, and as clients. - Theresa