At a birthday party the other day conversation turned to privacy. When someone complained about the erosion of our right to privacy I saw an opening to ask a question:
"When was the golden age of privacy in America?"
Among a dozen people there was nearly universal agreement around the time of the Bill of Rights. After all those founding fathers .. I just listened. It turns out they were wrong.
The idea of privacy was almost foreign in Revolutionary America. While the founders were arguing various rights for landed white males, the only nods to privacy were associated with the ownership of property - notably intellectual property. People were encouraged by the Revolutionary government and later the Federal government to spy on each other to ferret out who might be breaking a boycott or somehow not supporting the cause. Punishment came through social pressure like public shamming and sometimes worse.
You might think living in relative physical isolation as a farmer without telephones, cameras and Internet would give you serious privacy. The rub was you had to deal with others in your community. You had to buy and sell goods and services, most people went to church and so on. Chances were you'd never travel far from where you were born so you were surrounded by people who knew quite a bit about you. You were defined by your reputation and position. It probably seemed very normal to most people.
Change first emerged not on farms, but in the cities among the wealthy. With property came the idea of ownership and protection. This extended inside the house where there might be servants By the mid 1700s doors began to appear inside homes along with this radical new privy. Dealing with one's personal matters became a private affair. Jump ahead to the 1820s and even homes of the emerging middle class had private rooms and privies.
The South followed suit, but it took time and was more isolated. Travelers noted, with some shock, that as late as 1850 many houses were doorless inside and multiple families sleeping in the same room. Like New England change first came to the wealthy, but slaves and indentured whites were not allowed these luxuries. The right to this kind of privacy was reserved for certain social classes and skin colors.
I've written about the role of technology and will write more in the future, but privacy stakes me as something of a paradox. Many of us point to the erosion we think is caused by technology, but at the same time there have been great strides in other forms of privacy - keeping the government out of the bedroom and reproductive rights in general come to mind.
I've had conversations with legal scholars and historians. All told me they can't think of a simple robust definition even though all of us think we now what it is. At a high level I think it is at the boundary of the relationships among yourself, the state, religion, your work, your family and community and technology. We're each members of several larger wholes as well as being an individual. Change any of these in some major way and there is a need to be societal renegotions . Technology has been something of a cauldron of change over the past hundred and twenty years or so. .
We've always had problems with the judgement of others ..particularly when it's capricious, mindless or evil. With work some of these practices can be discovered although rectifying them can be difficult. Now we have massive data collection schemes often using data and data processing of questionable and untraceable provenance sitting in judgement. People point to China and its citizen scores, but Google, Facebook, Amazon and others are doing similar things here. As Cambridge Analytica taught us sometimes all a potential user of this information needs is a relatively simple toolkit.
Laws will always trail - except perhaps in authoritarian countries. Europe is taking some small steps with GDPR at this point. China and other countries (and companies!) are moving in the opposite direction. And many in the Western world believe privacy (whatever that means) is a human right. We are seeing regionalization and balkanization of the Internet and that may be just the beginning. And remember those algorithmic reputation and judgement engines.. So many difficult questions are raised.