In recent years, the debate about privacy has commonly been associated with the negative, intrusive aspects of government agencies and big tech. But what about the people who railed against this sort of control 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 from its invention up until the present. California’s 1998 “invasion of privacy statute” closely mirrors Brandeis’ thoughts on the growing trade of gossip overstepping the limits of decency. This statute became known as the “Anti-Paparazzi” Legislation. Brandeis was formulating these opinions over a century before these laws came into effect.
Alan F. Westin – A true pioneer of modern data privacy law before the digital revolution even took place! Westin laid down the foundations on 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.” This stance has become the widely held belief among the general public.
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 has polarised opinion on whether he has compromised national security or advocated for individual privacy. The reaction to Snowden’s actions is a prime indicator of whether 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 it harmed the public interest. What Snowden has done is to 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 world we live makes it nearly impossible not to be involved in the digital revolution, what really matters to Snowden is to be conscious of compromise. Snowden says that “Sharing is OK, but it should always be voluntary”, echoing Westin’s statements of 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 either a recognition of our relation to privacy or a morbid, humorous statement on its whereabouts in society. Orwell’s position has come to the fore with the advancement in tech. Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, states that we can honour 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 statements range from 1890 to 2020, but all push forward the same themes of self-control over privacy. The push for autonomy has only gathered momentum with technology rapidly shifting over the centuries. As technology stretches into new domains with IoT and passwordless authentication, expect a few more famous (or infamous) faces to arise in the digital age over the topic of privacy. Note the focus on the social aspects of privacy as an essential factor in the arguments of all four men. This aspect of the idea of privacy can get lost in a data-driven debate.