Naming Privacy & the Yanomami

Are our names ‘dead personal information’? In The Fourth Revolution Luciano Floridi argued that people are constituted by their information, and that privacy breaches are therefore a form of aggression against the person. It is an intriguing notion, and one that makes an end run around the flaws in the ‘information as personal property’ model of privacy. I think Floridi is correct to point out that in this sense information ‘expresses a sense of constitutive belonging, not of external ownership, a sense in which your body, your feelings, and your information are part of you but are not your (legal) possessions.’

Where I think Floridi runs into trouble is the concept of ‘dead personal information’ - information that Floridi considers no longer part of a person, or that does not constitute them to the same degree as information about their preferences and motives. The reason I’ve been puzzling over this concept while writing is that Floridi uses the Third Geneva Convention as a test of this type of information - where prisoners of war need to give their name, rank, date of birth and serial number. Floridi argues that this serves as an example of types of information that do not constitute the person in the same sense that detailed information about their preferences and private life would. In this sense, we can adapt to a non-binary world of privacy by identifying a small set of information where privacy is less of an issue, in order to protect the privacy which constitutes us, in the sense that it allows a person to constitute and re-constitute themselves without the world prying.

One quibble that I have with Floridi’s interpretation of the Convention is that these people actually need to convey a far greater amount of information than name, rank and serial number in order to identify themselves as persons warranting the status of prisoner of war. After all, they need to wear uniforms which have a ’fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance’ and carry arms openly. Furthermore, the communication of name and rank, etc, is a requirement for the person to gain privileges according to rank, or prisoner of war status, but withholding this information means that they are not protected by the Convention. Floridi thinks that this is fine, that, in the current world, this type of information can be communicated without harming the person. I’m not so sure that I agree on this, because it changes the basic standards of protection afforded human beings in society. The Geneva Conventions regulate violent interactions between political groups where the baseline of rights and protections afforded others was, at the time, effectively nil. Within a political group, however, it is perhaps axiomatic that individuals included within a community have some sort of protection from its whims. A person seeking to maintain their anonymity in the sense that Floridi indicates would be akin to a soldier refusing to give their name or rank (or wear a uniform, etc). Where equivalents of ‘Commando orders’ exist, such people might be executed by the detaining power. Nowadays this tends to be considered a war crime in itself, but the idea that a person would have to fork over information in order to be afforded basic protections (on the internet), is a troubling one.

What’s the problem with names? The latest issue of the New York Review of Books has a great example, which, for once, is entirely unrelated to internet culture and anonymity:

Davi Kopenawa was born around 1956 on the upper Rio Toototobi near Brazil’s border with Venezuela, which at the time had not yet been formally demarcated. His Yanomami name is known to his kinsmen but cannot be repeated in polite company: for the Yanomami, pronouncing a person’s name, especially that of a dead family member, is offensive and infuriating. Annoyed by outsiders who constantly pester the Yanomami about their names, Kopenawa says simply, “We want to protect our name. We don’t like to repeat it all the time.”

The article is a wonderful review of what looks to be a very interesting book. In the grand scheme of Floridi’s work on a philosophy of information, this refers to a relatively minor point. Nevertheless, I wonder what Davi Kopenawa (name given by Christian missionaries) would make of the idea that his name does not constitute his self to the same degree as more personal information.