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

The history of privacy is a peculiar topic to cover considering its definitions are constantly being rewritten through technological advancement. And how do we chronicle the history of something that varies so differently from cultural, historical, and individual perspectives? What we can agree on is that the concept of privacy has been a theme throughout 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, stated ‘the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’

While these concepts of privacy were floated around the world, a concrete idea was not fully formed until the publication of “The Right to Privacy” by Louis Brandeis and Samuel D. Warren in 1890. This 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.” It’s clear to see this keen feeling was becoming prominent in the public mind due to the rapid advances in technology. 80 years later, Alan Westin, the godfather 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.” These types of written publications have grown as technology has advanced and have now been pushed to the forefront with the rapid pace of world digitisation.

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. Greg Ferenstein argues that throughout human history, cultures have nearly always prioritised convenience and wealth over privacy. In terms of fame this is certainly true, but that is an extreme use case in comparison to your everyday person. The recent phenomenon of online culture may have accelerated our need for privacy and anonymity. But if we really valued our privacy above exposure and attention, would we be participating in social media in the first place? Perhaps the future will provide a happy medium between these two conflicting ideas. WhatsApp and Signal’s attempts to provide encryption come to mind.

The acceleration of government and tech surveillance has become a much realer threat than even George Orwell could have imagined when penning 1984. You will ironically hear people railing against their actions on Facebook, one of the largest data collection companies on the planet. Having said that, I have Facebook, and I’m writing this article. Do we genuinely care? Do people invoke their right to privacy when it suits them, and do they practice what they preach?

Many people’s stance on privacy have also become challenged due to the sheer speed and variety of products which are offered to them in the digital world. Take TikTok for example. Only a couple of years old, the social media app has made headline news for its data collection policies and links to the Chinese Government. Their 800 million users don’t seem to know or care that much.

The concept of privacy has entered a new realm of debate with the acceleration of the digital revolution. It is no longer a conversation that can be avoided, due to the increase in regulations for the group and individual. The expansion of government and tech has impacted personal privacy to the point where all discussion and thought about it prior to the internet are almost irrelevant. The unavoidable nature of interacting digitally will certainly put the issue of privacy firmly in the centre of conversation for the long-term future. A concrete idea of privacy for business is finally beginning to emerge in the 21st century through regulations such as GDPR. Having said that, on an individual basis, there seems to be no joint consensus on what it means, and no real desire to fight for it.

Best Regards,
StayPrivate Team

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