The Past and Future of Privacy

A spirited analysis of the evolution of privacy from hunter-gatherer times to the modern era. How will it play out in the future? Only time may tell.

Simply speaking, privacy is the state of being free from public attention. It is the right of an individual to stay away from the public eye. It is not secrecy. It is, however, your freedom from intrusion and interference.

Your right to privacy is a fundamental human right, as articulated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it is non-negotiable.

What’s more, you shouldn’t have to hide in the remotest corners of Siberia to exercise this right.

Information privacy, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. Information privacy is the right to have some control over how your personal information is collected and used.

In today’s world, information privacy steps across boundaries and joins forces with transparency.

Which brings us to the next question: what exactly is Transparency?

Again, broadly speaking, transparency is the state of being open to public scrutiny. However, a closer look indicates that the interpretation of transparency is three-pronged.

Transparency as a public value embraced by society to counter misdeeds Transparency that is synonymous with out-in-the-open decision making by governments and other bodies Transparency as a pillar of good governance in programs, policies, organizations, and nations.

Privacy and transparency are both entirely desirable. Yet, of late, it seems to be a case of either – or.

In a world that is zipping towards a flat and transparent environment, it seems like privacy, as it was known and respected in the past, is redundant. As individuals and as a society, the scales seem to be tipping in favour of laying it all out in the open.

Starting with selfies and social media, we place our most intimate moments into the hands of complete strangers. Love, grief, passion, elation, break-ups, anger, hunger, celebration, funerals, religion, political affiliation and that mosquito bite on the tip of your nose…they are all available for public consumption.

The fact is, historically speaking, privacy as a concept was an alien one. In pre-historic times, homes did not have walls. Hunter-gatherer societies lived in communal caves. Hunting, cooking, eating, sleeping, sex, childbirth, bathing, praying…all of these activities had an audience.

Privacy, as we know it, is a concept that evolved only around 500 to 600 years ago.

The earliest practitioners of privacy were perhaps those whose sophisticated knowledge of geometry and mathematics helped them build walls. However, it was with the advent of Christianity, and with it, the concept of internal morality and the need to cloister oneself from the evils of society, that privacy gained currency.

For example, silent reading only became popular when the printing press made books cheap enough for individual ownership.

Pox and the Black Death threw the spotlight on unclean and crowded communal living places. And this inspired the evolution of private rooms, baths and beds.

By the 15th and 16th century, it became common for those who could afford to do so, to shelter themselves from the public eye.

The Right to Privacy was first formally addressed in the United States by Louis Brandeis, an Associate Justice in the Supreme Court. Ironically, the primary reason used to justify this right in 1890 is the one still used to justify it today: technology’s encroachment on personal information.

Laws were passed, and in time, the Right to Privacy became a fundamental right.

Yet, in parallel, notwithstanding these laws and rights, one phenomenon began to regain strength. Citizens once again began to find comfort in being a part of the crowd.

Town-criers, newspapers, postcards, telegrams, radio and telephone started reaching out to public audiences. At town squares, coffee-houses and public gatherings, privacy began to lose ground. Eavesdropping, spying and gossiping became a rewarding occupation.

So, when during the American Civil War, intercepted wiretapped messages landed on President Lincoln’s table routinely, hardly any anti-establishment slogans were raised.

The age of electronic surveillance had dawned.

Mass surveillance got underway sometime before World War I. Military intelligence wore the garb of national security and passed private roadblocks. Already, phone tapping had been ruled constitutional for effective law enforcement, largely targeting gangsters in the Prohibition era. A brief shutdown of electronic surveillance may have resulted in the catastrophic surprise at Pearl Harbour. The rest is history. Now there was ample justification for Operation Shamrock – a comprehensive mass surveillance program to catch Soviet spies after World War II.

Thus, blossomed the use and abuse of technological espionage. Remember Watergate?

Technological espionage could also be termed transparency, as long as it was used by the State, for the greater common good.

Yet, transparency today has come to mean that not only the State, but anyone with the means to pay for them, can buy your most private details.

Rising costs and paucity of open living spaces have once again made the community living model popular. Burgeoning skyscrapers, gated communities and apartment complexes stand testimony to this reverse migration.

Your free Bluetooth, wi-fi, smart homes, smart connections, smart cards, location tracking devices, health trackers, unique identity cards and all the promises they come with are not really free. They come at some cost to your privacy.

Every nanosecond, your every action (including the ones that are involuntarily happening inside your mind and body) is usable information for someone or the other. No behaviour escapes categorization.

Believing that it is “good for you”, you have exchanged privacy for transparency. And you don’t even know who you have given it to.

The situation is not that dire, of course. Hopefully, transparency may usher in accountability, and counter corruption and other ills that plague society today. It just might be the check and balance that is needed to rein in the unscrupulous and the powerful. However, the law cannot discriminate between people. It must be common for all – the haves and the have-nots.

Transparency places voluminous amounts of highly sensitive personal data in the hands of the government and private bodies. As of now, there is no 100% fool-proof mechanism to protect this data. While there is a promise of crackdown on corruption and tax evasion, there is no reciprocal commitment of protection from the government in case of identity theft.

Transparency, if used to discriminate, divide and program human thought and action, is a ticking time bomb.

It is hard to say if a balance can be struck…if the light between privacy and transparency can shine both ways.

When the future is history, we’ll have some answers.

Maya George is Vice President, Content at The PRactice.