The birth and death of privacy

Dilbert
I was in a local grocery store recently and it was my misfortune to enter, and walk most of the same aisles at the same time as a voluble woman shopper. She spent her entire time there on her cell phone. From before she entered, through the time she collected her groceries, went through the cash register, and exited, she did not once stop talking. Loudly.

And it was a very personal, intimate conversation, as I and those in her near vicinity heard. Not intimate as in sexual, but she talked about private and personal issues, about other people, her feelings, her job, and so on. Did I mention she was loud? Loud enough to hear her clearly at the far end of the aisle.

The whole store was her audience. I saw other shoppers looking at her, some staring angrily, but she was oblivious. And that made me wonder if we have, thanks to the swell of new technologies, entirely abandoned the notion of privacy that we have slowly crafted over the past three millennia.

No we haven’t, says Neil M. Richards, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, In 2014, he published a paper on “Four Privacy Myths.” In it, he wrote:

…if we think about privacy as outdated or impossible, our digital revolution may have no rules at all, a result that will disempower all but the most powerful among us… we can no longer think about privacy as merely how much of our lives are completely secret, or about privacy as hiding bad truths from society. How we shape the technologies and data flows will have far-reaching effects for the social structures of the digital societies of the future.

It is possible, I suppose, that the woman on her phone was just an unusually rude and inconsiderate person. But I’ve seen too many similar incidents with other people to believe she is a rare example. It’s not just her lack of cell-phone manners: it was her attitude towards her personal information that caught my attention and made me research the intersection of privacy and technology.

Actually, most of our modern, Western notions of privacy are quite new, many culturally instilled only in the last 150 years. Personal privacy, as we now consider it, was not the norm before the 19th century.  (Aside from sexual privacy, which historically was preserved, but is being eroded by the vast tsunami of online pornography, including celebrity sex tapes and images…). The camera, in the late 19th century, was really the spark that lit the conversation about privacy.

Greg Ferenstein has put together a fascinating history of privacy in 46 images that shows how we developed our idea of having a private space over the ages. It’s quite enlightening.

Continue reading “The birth and death of privacy”