Ethics and Information Technology

, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp 157–169 | Cite as

Murky conceptual waters: The public and the private

  • Gary T. Marx


In discussions on the ethics of surveillance and consequently surveillance policy, the public/private distinction is often implicitly or explicitly invoked as a way to structure the discussion and the arguments. In these discussions, the distinction ‘public’ and ‘private’ is often treated as a uni-dimensional, rigidly dichotomous and absolute, fixed and universal concept, whose meaning could be determined by the objective content of the behavior. Nevertheless, if we take a closer look at the distinction in diverse empirical contexts we find them to be more subtle, diffused and ambiguous than suggested. Thus, the paper argues for the treatment of these distinctions as multi-dimensional, continuous and relative, fluid and situational or contextual, whose meaning lies in how they are interpreted and framed. However, the aim of this paper is not to finally ‘sort things out’. The objective is rather to demonstrate the complexities of the distinction in various contexts and to suggest that those using the distinction, when considering the ethics and politics of surveillance technologies, would benefit from more clearly specifying which dimensions they have in mind and how they relate.


Information System User Interface Human Computer Interaction Technology Management Objective Content 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gary T. Marx
    • 1
  1. 1.Bainbridge IslandUSA

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