Identity Theft

What Does Privacy Even Mean These Days?

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A friend raised this question recently—on Facebook no less.

The question isn’t new. Whether we recognize it or not, Americans have historically asked and re-asked this question. We redefine what privacy means to us on a regular basis. You could say it’s part of our national DNA.

The concept of privacy was central to our forefathers’ discussions of revolution. Okay, so the word “privacy” never appears in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. But it’s a reappearing theme in our nation’s legal, social and political framework. Two examples: the First and Fourth Amendments, which address the freedom of religion and unreasonable searches and seizures.

America is constantly shifting its views when it comes to privacy. While the catalyst for these shifting perspectives has often been political, more often it has been technological.

Take for example the industrial revolution and the invention of the telegraph in 1837 and the telephone in 1876. Suddenly, information could be communicated instantaneously around the world. Then there’s the 1890 census, the first one to use mechanical data-processing technologies rather than human tabulation. (Interestingly, the device that read the census punch cards resulted in the eventual founding of IBM, but that’s another story.)

When you overlay innovations in communications and data processing with the rapid development of photographic and newspaper publication technologies, suddenly Victorian concerns about privacy don’t seem so distant or quaint.  As Louis Brandeis who later became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice noted in his 1890 Harvard Law Review article, “Right to Privacy”:

“Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’”

This quote could have easily been written yesterday, and that’s my point.  Every generation has had to ask the question: “What does privacy mean?” The universal answer for every generation is simply that: Privacy means what we demand it to mean.

When we’re willing to endure the Patriot Act to feel more “secure,” we redefine privacy. When we’re willing to accept online tracking of our behavior, searches and human connections for the sake of convenience, we redefine privacy.

I alone can’t answer the question. It requires all of us as a society to actually chime in, so to speak.  What I can tell you though is simply this:

The more we demand regarding our privacy, the greater its meaning, whatever that meaning comes to be.

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