Posted on Feb 15, 2017 by Rick Falkvinge

Understanding the different Maslow need levels for privacy




When we aspire to have privacy, we may do so for a number of different reasons. All these reasons are valid, but some are more urgent than others, psychologically speaking. When debating privacy issues, it’s important to be aware of these psychological models and the very real consequences involved.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow created a theory known as the Maslow Hierarchy of Human Needs, which predicts the ranked order people will adhere to in seeking out certain things in their life. Where privacy is ranked on this list is a matter of which environment you operate in, and it’s crucial to recognize the differences.

Generally speaking, Maslow predicted that people won’t progress to addressing a higher level of needs until the current level is fully satisfied. The first level involves basic physiological needs – food, air, water, heat. Once these are satisfied, people start working on the second – safety from violence, safety in having food, air, and water for tomorrow as well; general freedom from worry. The third level is a sense of belonging to a group or tribe, the fourth is enjoying a sense of respect within that tribe, and the fifth and highest is self-development, once all other levels are satisfied.

The key thing to bear in mind here is that if you’re unsatisfied with safety (level two), for instance, then nothing of what you’re being served on levels three, four, and five really matters. If you don’t have your basic physical needs like food, water, or even oxygen met (level one), then no other needs are taken into account at that point. If you’re starving, you’re not going to be concerned with respect in your group.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. (Click to enlarge.)

Here’s the key realization that people want privacy for vastly different reasons. This is really common sense, but to have a model for it like this helps to make the concepts tangible.

Most of us who debate the merits of privacy do so for self-development reasons. We think it’s a better society where people have privacy, and for good reasons – very good reasons: all societies where privacy is or has been absent (North Korea, East Germany) have generally been… shall we call them low-satisfaction societies. But the key is that we’re still debating from an internal motivation of self-development (in this case, it makes no difference whether we’re seeking to develop ourselves or our society in general).

Those of us who talk at conferences about privacy and who write about it on blogs like this generally don’t talk about privacy because of physical safety concerns. Nor do we do so for a sense of belonging. You could argue that people who talk and write about privacy from the safety and comfort of an office or a cafĂ© do so competing for respect in their group or tribe (level four), but that’s still a follow-on effect from the meritocracy development on level five.

Now, compare this who people who get mortar shells flying toward their location the second it is revealed. There are stories of reporters in rebel zones who have wanted to use a satellite phone to contact the outside world for whatever reason, and where the local commander led them to a deserted area, handed them a satphone and started the clock. After eight minutes of having the phone active, the commander would say “that’s enough”, terminate the call, turn off the phone and rapidly walk away from the location with the reporter. About four minutes after that, explosive ordnance would start raining down and killing anything within a football field area of the precise location of where the phone call was made. Somebody in this situation also wants privacy, but for completely different reasons: basic, actual, physical safety – what the model says is level two on the Maslow scale.

The important thing to realize here is that somebody arguing privacy from level five (self-development) will have their actions affected by not offending their previously-met needs on levels three and four (belonging, respect, and recognition). Somebody arguing privacy from level two (physical safety) will have no such concerns whatsoever. This level-five mechanism would manifest as a respect for contemporary taboos when arguing on conferences and columns, even when those taboos get in the way of actual developments in privacy.

(There are exceptions to the respect for taboos. I’ve frequently taken flak for disrespecting them – some of them. Maybe I’m respecting other ones subconsciously.)

There’s a conflict of interest here that’s based on how we’re psychologically wired at the physical level: somebody arguing for privacy from a level-five standpoint will not do so in a way that jeopardizes the needs met at lower levels.

There are also other noteworthy political reasons people will aspire and demand privacy. Most would do it from a human rights or civil liberties standpoint. However, if you’re looking at many governments in Asia, they could not care less about human rights as a Western concept – but they do want strong privacy, because it enables whistleblowing of corruption in their government. Thus, they want it from a level three standpoint – the ability to report corruption without repercussions from your peers, essentially.

There’s a saying here: politics is the art of making people agree with you, but for their own reasons.

Now, you could argue that you’re learning to use privacy properly as a hobby because you see a day where you might really need it, the way mass surveillance is developing and governments are cracking down on liberty. This would be a very valid argument. This would not be entirely unlike learning to quickly fight house fires as a form of self-development (level five), until the night you wake up from your smoke alarm and put your skills to use (level one). Or hoard some food as a form of self-development where people ridicule you as a tinfoil-hat doomsday prepper, until that day an ordinary snowstorm shuts down all food deliveries and you just go out to your bunker and causally grab some tasty freeze-dried chow, while others scramble for bread and rice where they can get it. Something that’s on level five today may be on a lower level tomorrow.

It’s with this insight that a lot of us are arguing for privacy, which remains your own responsibility.

About Rick Falkvinge

Rick is Head of Privacy at Private Internet Access. He is also the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. Additionally, he has a tech entrepreneur background and loves good whisky and fast motorcycles.


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1 Comments

  1. Antimon555

    Great article, we really need these kinds of new ways to think about how to inform of the need for privacy.

    This ties well into Swedish city Malmö, where there is shooting a little now and then, and the Police and the Minster for Home Affairs, Anders Ygeman, has proposed that huge networks of stationary and police uniform- road vehicle- and aerial vehicle mounted CCTV cameras with facial recognition, pattern recognition, and other software, be commissioned all over Sweden.

    Personally, I fear that such a system will be a threat to at least level 2 in the future (which is probably not a common fear at all), but for many, the criminality is such a threat now, and this system is presented as a solution to that criminality. Which it of course isn’t, because people that are up to no good where there are cameras around will obviously just put a mask on…

    10 months ago
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