In recent years, the debate about privacy has intensified as government agencies and large companies have used technology to intrude into our lives. But what about the people who railed against this sort of interference in the first place? Which prominent figures formulated our thoughts or brought the notion of privacy into the public mind? Some people have stood above all others.
Louis Brandeis – A celebrated lawyer and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Brandeis helped develop the concept of a “right to be let alone” and published “The Right to Privacy” in 1890. Brandeis believed that expressions of emotions were private property and wanted to protect them. He was one of the first people to challenge the intrusive nature of the press, something that has been a constant theme ever since. A century later, California’s 1998 “invasion of privacy statute” closely mirrors Brandeis’ thoughts on the growing trade of gossip overstepping the limits of decency.
Alan F. Westin – A true pioneer of modern data privacy law before the digital revolution even took place, Westin laid down the foundations for self-control over data in his 1967 book, Privacy and Freedom. “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.”
Like Louis Brandeis, Westin also expanded on the social aspect of privacy, stating four functions of privacy for everyday life:
- The need for personal autonomy. Westin proposed that privacy was the basis for the development of individuality.
- Privacy as a form of emotional release. Privacy supports healthy functioning to express feelings of anger or grief without fear of ridicule.
- Privacy helps self-evaluation and decision making. Solitude and the opportunity for reflection are essential for creativity.
- The need for limited and protected communication. This is especially true in the digital age.
Edward Snowden – The most controversial person on this list. Snowden polarizes opinion; depending on your point of view, he has either compromised national security or advocated for individual privacy. The reaction to Snowden’s actions is a measure of whether and how much people are willing to give up individual privacy rights to fight terrorism, criminality, and fraud. Based on a Pew Research report in 2018, the American people are split over this. 49% of Americans said Snowden’s leaks of classified information served the public interest, while 44% said they harmed the public interest. Either way, Snowden has helped bring the ethics of government surveillance into open discussion.
If Westin and Brandeis laid the foundations for privacy in the past, Snowden has begun laying down the foundation for reclaiming it in the present. He has advocated for the use of encrypted phone calls and text messages, password managers and two-factor authentication. He wants these methods to become a painless process for everyone. While the current state of affairs makes it nearly impossible not to lose some agency over our privacy, what really matters to Snowden is that people be conscious of this compromise. Snowden says that “Sharing is OK, but it should always be voluntary”, echoing Westin’s statements about having control over the extent of information communicated to other groups and individuals.
George Orwell – Orwell’s seminal 1984 pushed forward the thought of state surveillance. The fact that sayings like ‘Room 101’ and ‘Big Brother’ have become common in the English language is a recognition of his influence, but his cautionary writings have only become more relevant as technology has advanced. Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, says that we can honor Orwell by refusing to give up power to the digital future. Assertions of our morals, against forces that appear invincible, are a must.
These pioneers’ actions are all linked through their opposition to too much government and technological intrusion. Their timeline extends from 1890 to today, but what is common to all is that they have each promoted the same themes of individual control over privacy. This push for autonomy is gathering more momentum as technology becomes ever more omnipresent. We should expect a few more famous (or infamous) names to be added to this list over the next few years.