When we consider privacy from a broader historical perspective, it becomes evident that the modern concept of privacy is relatively new, says Sarah Pearce.
Why so private then? By Sarah Pearce.
WITH THE role of privacy and its importance in the digital age once again hitting the news, it's worth reflecting on some underlying assumptions about it that are frequently made.
We take it for granted that our right to privacy is always assumed from a modern perspective and something worth defending at all costs, and maybe it is, but to really understand how to construct appropriate and effective safeguards for privacy (if that is the end goal), it's necessary to start looking at how privacy has evolved throughout history and into the digital age.
Perhaps David Houle sums it up best when he says: “It is now time for humanity to engage in a deeper discussion of privacy. Do we still have it, and how do we choose to live in a world where it is becoming more ephemeral? What is the future of privacy in the digital world? Is privacy dead? How do we live in a world without privacy?”
These are great questions, and frankly, the primary reason that the issue has become so contentious is because most people don't realise how much of their information is collected, stored, or accessed by entities that they have little or no connection to.
This is usually due to the fact that we have been conditioned to accept the terms and conditions of almost all sites and applications without reading the fine print, or employing the use of options that limit access to our information.
But when we consider privacy from a broader historical perspective, it becomes evident very quickly that the modern concept of privacy is relatively new having been developed within only the last two centuries. Furthermore, humans have almost always prioritised convenience or wealth-based benefits over the right to privacy. Even the internet pioneer Vint Cerf stated, “Privacy may actually be an anomaly.”
We see examples of this throughout human evolution. Ancient tribes often shared nomadic homes with no walls – and no privacy – even for the most intimate of moments. When cities began to form, the homes typically also had no walls or very thin ones, again, providing little to no privacy, though in many cities, public displays of information and affection were not discouraged.
Privacy really only gained even the smallest foothold after the printing press was invented, providing a need for solitude and reflection during study, although even this phenomenon was a luxury that only the elite were privy to. Individual beds provided another profound leap in the expectation of privacy and with the changes of the Industrial Revolution, the home slowly evolved to become a much more private place.
This is the point in history in which privacy becomes an expectation, for the wealthy at least, and laws began to be adopted to protect information.
The sharing of early communications technology, such as the telephone and telegraph led to a desire from many to prevent others from knowing the details of such interactions. Up until this time, governments had no issue with intruding upon the privacy of individuals when there was suspicion, and phone taps and bugs were frequently used.
Slowly, the expectation of privacy was legally adopted.
Yet, with the technological revolution over the last several decades, there has been a reversal of the amount of privacy in most individuals' lives, although in this instance, it is often freely given rather than taken by others.
People store passwords and allow cookies because it is convenient. Biometric data is collected as people adopt the use of wearable devices that promote fitness and health. Cohabitation is growing in popularity in major urban areas due to high rent.
These examples are part of a larger trend in which privacy is made secondary to convenience, health or profit. This is almost exclusively viewed as a negative consequence – any internet search regarding the importance of internet privacy will confirm this entirely. But when it is approached from a historical perspective, then Vint Cerf's concept of privacy as an anomaly makes much more sense.
Perhaps the real question lies not in how much privacy we need to protect, but truly, how much do we want? While many individuals cite privacy as a top concern, this issue will continue to evolve as other needs, such as the safety of community and convenience for the individual, are deemed more important than privacy.
While there is no easy answer to this question, every discussion about privacy should include the notion that it is a transient concept, with a meaning that is constantly in negotiation by society. This may be one method for engaging in a much more productive dialogue concerning privacy rights in the digital age.
Source: Historical examples and the timeline can be seen in this article: https:// medium.com/the-ferenstein-wire/the-birthand-death-of-privacy-3- 000-years-ofhistory-in-50-images- 614c26059e)