“I Am Datafied Because We Are Datafied”: an Ubuntu Perspective on (Relational) Privacy


The debate on the ethics of privacy has been mainly dominated by Western perspectives, to the exclusion of broader ethical theories and socio-cultural perspectives. This imbalance carries risks; transplanted ethical norms and values can collide with those of the communities in which they are deployed. The consequent homogenization might also represent a missed opportunity to enrich and develop the current paradigm of privacy protection so as to effectively face new technological challenges. This article introduces and discusses the sub-Saharan philosophy of Ubuntu and argues how its conception of the self helps to reinterpret some of the emerging issues revolving digital information technologies. To begin with, a general overview of the debate on the ethics of privacy is provided by distinguishing between individual and relational privacy. Also, the challenges of 'group privacy' are discussed. Then, we introduce basic principles of Ubuntu focusing on how these may have affected privacy conceptions and related legal practices. By outlining opportunities and risks of intercultural information ethics, we argue how Ubuntu—similarly to other communitarian moral philosophies—strengthens the development of the concept of relational privacy and, in particular, of group privacy.

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  1. 1.

    The meme shows a group of children forming a circle with their feet, with the following short tale: “an anthropologist proposed a game to the children of an African tribe. He put a basket of fruit near a tree and told them that whoever came first would win all the fruit. When given the signal to run, the children held hands and ran, sitting down together to enjoy the prize. When asked why they had run together, if only one could get all the fruit, they said, Ubuntu, how could one of us be happy if everyone else is sad?”

  2. 2.

    Ubuntu is an ethno-philosophy in the sense that it is a system of thought that deals with the collective worldviews of diverse (sub-Saharan) Africans as a unified form of knowledge based on myths, folk wisdom, and proverbs. In other words, the diversity of African peoples, in terms of geographical location, history, and ethnicity, does not take away the fact that Africans have “a unified form of knowledge” that is based on group identity or community. This is what qualifies Ubuntu as an important aspect of ethno-philosophy (Mangena 2016).

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    Bygrave (2001) comments, however, that this lack of a conceptual consensus on the substance of privacy could be a means to allow more flexibility during a legal interpretation of a right to privacy and consequently data protection, hence wider applicability and better protection for individuals.

  4. 4.

    Bounded rationality is the idea that individuals are not always rational and that decision-making processes are prone to systematic errors. Kahneman (2003) described two major cognitive systems from which individuals take decisions: an “automatic system” (or System 1) and a “reflective system” (or System 2). While the latter is the slow, effortful, and controlled way to think, the former is efficient, rapid, largely unconscious, and prone to systematic errors.

  5. 5.

    Wachter and Mittelstadt (2019) highlight a similar legal dilemma while discussing the decision by the European Court of Justice in the case of YS, M and S (Joined Cases C–141 & 372/12, YS, M and S v. Minister voor Immigratie, Integratie en Asiel, (2014)) where the Court failed to give a direct response as to whether the final opinions, results, or inferences about an individual resulting from the analysis personal data (in an application for legal residency) is itself personal data.

  6. 6.

    With ‘big data,’ we generally refer to very large sets of data that can only be stored, understood, and used with the help of special tools and methods.

  7. 7.

    Interestingly, Van der Sloot (2016) notes that “one could focus on the initial moment when personal data are gathered and not yet aggregated, but this may only concern the split second which it takes to aggregate data. The same counts for the moment at which group profiles are applied and used to affect a specific person. This only concerns the very end of the data process. By focusing on the individual, his interests and rights, one loses sight of the larger part of the data processing scheme and the general issues concerned with that.”

  8. 8.

    Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 1995 on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data

  9. 9.

    The term Ubuntu (or Botho or Hunhu) is a word of the Nguni family of languages including Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, Sesotho, and Shona referring to the moral attribute of a person, who is known in the Bantu languages as, to name a few, Munhu (among the Shona of Zimbabwe), Umuntu (among the Ndebele of Zimbabwe and the Zulu/Xhosa of South Africa), Muthu (among the Tswana of Botswana), and Omundu (among the Herero of Namibia) (Mangena 2016).

  10. 10.

    In particular Aristotles pros hen; “pros hen pluralism” is a three-layered doctrine, consisting of one requirement for diversity at a cultural level, another for diversity at an ethical theoretic level, and the third for unity at the ethical theoretic level (Ess 2006).

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    There however has been considerable progress in Africa in terms of (digital) privacy awareness and legislation in the last decade, with over 20 countries having passed personal data protection laws.

  12. 12.

    It is worth mentioning here that, in Europe, it is not uncommon for legislators to make recourse to ethics to seek solutions for legal problems. Recitals in the GDPR are a good example of a “soft ethics” instrument. Also, the GDPR allows for ethical considerations in data processing by virtue of its Article 5(1)(a) of the GDPR, which requires data protection to be processed “fairly.” This principle of fair processing is not well-elaborated upon in the GDPR, which leaves open the opportunity for a more holistic interpretation extending beyond strict legal constraints to reflect more on ethical considerations when protecting the rights of individuals, including, evidently, their right to privacy.

  13. 13.

    As Nissenbaum and Barocas (2016) in fact clearly explain: “When analysts can draw rules from the data of a small cohort of consenting individuals that generalize to an entire population, consent loses its practical import. In fact, the value of a particular individual’s withheld consent diminishes the more effectively a company can draw inferences from the set of people that do consent as it approaches a representative sample. (p.32)” This observation further highlights the relationality of privacy and the need to tackle the limitations of individual consent.


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Conceptualization, material preparation, review and editing were performed by Urbano Reviglio. The manuscript was written by Urbano Reviglio (section 1, 2, 3.1) and Rogers Alunge (section 3, 4.1 and 4.2), with section 4.3 jointly made. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Reviglio, U., Alunge, R. “I Am Datafied Because We Are Datafied”: an Ubuntu Perspective on (Relational) Privacy. Philos. Technol. (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-020-00407-6

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  • Privacy
  • Ethics
  • Ubuntu
  • Intercultural ethics
  • Relational privacy
  • Group privacy