A Brief History of Privacy in the Public Mind 

3 minute read 

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said, ‘I want to be left alone!’ There is all the difference.” – Greta Garbo

We all have a pretty good idea in our own heads of what mean by privacy, but a precise definition is often more difficult to pin down. The growth of the internet has significantly affected our privacy and the way we perceive privacy. But how do these developments compare with what has come before?

The concept of privacy has been a theme throughout the history of human civilization. Aristotle pondered the difference between the oikos (private family life) and the polis (the public realm of political affairs). The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, written in 1791, included ‘the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’

A clear definition of privacy was arguably first floated with the publication of “The Right to Privacy” by Louis Brandeis and Samuel D. Warren in 1890. Their article argued for the “right to be let alone” and was primarily a response to the “evil of the invasion of privacy by the newspapers, long keenly felt.” There is an analogy with the late nineteenth century and today – advances in communications technology had raised the prominence of the issue of privacy in the public mind.

Eighty years later, Alan Westin, a pioneer in the field of data protection and consumer privacy, defined privacy in terms of self-determination: “Privacy is the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.”

If self-determination is the main theme that privacy has revolved around in recent history, it’s interesting to see how it differs between collective and the individual viewpoints. Whilst Greg Ferenstein argues that throughout human history, cultures have nearly always prioritized convenience and wealth over privacy, he also accepts that even very primitive cultures preferred privacy. It is fair to conclude that privacy is less of a priority when more basic needs, like getting food on the table, come first. This is, of course, less of a problem today, at least for some of us.

The recent growth in online sharing has amplified our need for privacy and anonymity. One might ask that if we really valued our privacy above exposure and attention, would we be participating in social media in the first place? The answer is yes, we want to be able to choose what gets shared and what stays private. But the sheer speed of change and variety of products being offered to us can be bewildering. Take TikTok for example. Only five years old, the social media app has made headline news for its data collection policies and links to the Chinese Government. Their 1 billion users don’t seem to know or care that much. Or do they?

The acceleration of government and tech surveillance has become a much more real threat than surely even George Orwell could have imagined when penning ‘1984’. The concept of privacy has entered a new realm of debate as more and more of our lives go online. The pervasiveness of technology has impacted personal privacy to the point where all discussion and thought about privacy prior to the internet are almost irrelevant. The unavoidable nature of interacting online will put the issue of privacy firmly in the center of conversation for the long-term future. This is no longer a challenge that can be dodged.

The StayPrivate Team

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