Privacy: What it means & why it matters

–– 12 Feb 2019

When we think about privacy, it’s easy to get lost in spy films, MI5, government surveillance, big brother and CCTV cameras. Yet privacy and its tentacles spread much further into our daily lives than we might think.

In this article, we’ll look at what privacy means, its history, how it’s evolved and why it matters. This short post is intended as a primer on privacy and links for further reading are included throughout and at the bottom.

What is privacy?

The IAPP defined it as “The right to be let alone, or freedom from interference or intrusion. Information privacy is the right to have some control over how your personal information is collected and used.”

Although this seems simple, privacy is a hard concept to define, because it is subjective. What some might define as an intrusion may differ from others.

For example, whilst I may be happy to tell my colleague at work about my father’s career, others may not wish to reveal information about their father’s occupation so freely. But what if this information can be gathered without you telling someone?

Aristotle & the ‘right to be let alone’

In the 4th century BC Greek Philosopher Aristotle talked about the distinction between two spheres of life: the public sphere of the Polis, associated with political life, and the private sphere of the Oikos, related to domestic life. Even as far back as 4th century Greece can we begin to see the distinction between having a public and private life.

The Right to Privacy” a law review article written by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, was published in 1890 in the Harvard Law Review. This article attempted to define privacy, its limitations and is seen by many as the first publication on informational privacy that advocates a right to privacy, or “right to be let alone” as we saw in the definition by the IAPP earlier.

 

 

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The Right to Privacy (1890) was written due to the rise in new printing technologies and newspapers at the time. This already starts to highlight the relationship between privacy and advances in new technology.

For example, telephones connections were once facilitated by an operator, meaning the call wasn’t technically ‘secret’ and could be infiltrated by whomever wished to listen in. However as phone technology increased, dial telephone services were brought in (as seen in this poster). Notice its unique selling point “The ONE phone that gives SECRET SERVICE.”

Debates and writings around privacy continued to increase until the later twentieth century due to the development of the privacy protection laws, sometimes referred to as data protection laws, laid out to stop disclosure or misuse of information about individuals.

Jumping back into the history books tells us just how strong a relationship there is between technology and personal privacy. As technology continued to advance into the late twentieth century, it brought with it computers and software systems that could hold even more information and would shift privacy into a new paradigm.

The information age & the internet

We know that new technologies such as the printing press and telephones increased our ability to share information and so it’s no surprise that when computers and the internet took off it would become an important topic.

Andrew Grove, Co-Founder & CEO of the Intel Corporation (Image via AnandTech)

A few years before the Dot-com bubbleAndrew Grove, Co-Founder and former CEO of the Intel Corporation, said in an interview published in May 2000:

“Privacy is one of the biggest problems in this new electronic age. At the heart of the Internet culture is a force that wants to find out everything about you. And once it has found out everything about you and two hundred million others, that’s a very valuable asset, and people will be tempted to trade and do commerce with that asset. This wasn’t the information that people were thinking of when they called this the information age.”

Andrew Grove identified in 2000 that when we as a society are given a greater ability to gather and send information it leads to new ways our information can be breached.

Why privacy matters & the privacy crisis

In 1980 Ruth Gavison, an Israeli Law professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote that privacy is important for the “promotion of liberty, autonomy, selfhood, human relations, and furthering the existence of a free society.” Thirty eight years later, Frederike Kaltheuner of Privacy International, a charity working at the intersection of modern technologies and rights wrote in POLITICO that privacy is “a necessary precondition for democracy.”

Yet here we are. In the midst of privacy crisis that shows no sign of tailing off. Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal along with many others provide a multitude of evidence that begin to show us the scale of the information privacy problem.

Slowly, the privacy crisis is being challenged. Notably by the E.U. and the recent General Data Protection Regulation that came into effect on the 25th May 2018 which sought to empower individuals and fine companies who do not adhere to the regulation. For technology companies, an even stricter law known as the ePrivacy Regulation is currently pending for release in 2019.

The ePrivacy regulation means that companies must require explicit consent from users for all messaging services such as WhatsApp and Skype before companies can place tracking codes on your devices to gather data. You can read more about that here.

Conclusion

Determining for ourselves where and how our personal information is exchanged and communicated has for years favoured the internet and technology giants. Taking back control of how and when our personal information is exchanged is as empowering as it is essential for our democracy and freedom. It is a problem that is slowly becoming clearer and will be one of the biggest challenges of our time.

References

IAPP., (2018)., International Association of Privacy Professionals.

Kosoff, M., (2018) “The next big anti-tech backlash is just beginning”, Vanity Fair.

Kaltheuner, F., (2018) “Privacy is power”, POLITICO magazine.

Standler, R., (1997) “Privacy Law in the United States”.

Sager, M., (2007) “What I’ve Learned: Andy Grove”, Esquire magazine.

Warren, S. and Brandeis, L., (1890) “The Right to Privacy,” Harvard Law Review, 4: 193–220.

Westin, Alan., (1967) “Privacy and Freedom,” New York: Atheneum. p. 7.

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