We’re being watched, Part 6 of 7: A Brief History of Privacy

This is a seven-part miniseries I’m doing on privacy and unauthorized surveillance in the digital age. Check out links to the other posts at the bottom.

“Privacy may actually be an anomaly” ~ Vinton Cerf, Co-creator of the military’s early Internet prototype and Google executive.

It’s helpful to put our current concerns about privacy in historical context. To that end, I found this wonderful post by Greg Ferenstein, “The Birth And Death Of Privacy: 3,000 Years of History Told Through 46 Images

Privacy, as it is conventionally understood, is only about 150 years old. Most humans living throughout history had little concept of privacy in their tiny communities. Sex, breastfeeding, and bathing were shamelessly performed in front of friends and family.

Here’s the 2 minute summary:

Ferenstein reports that “There was no classical or medieval latin word equivalent to ‘privacy’. privatio meant ‘a taking away.’” America’s first privacy law was probably the 1710 Post Office Act, which banned sorting through the mail by postal employees. But the notion of a right to privacy wasn’t suggested until 1890, in a Harvard Law Review article by Louis Brandeis.

Ferenstein suggests we may have hit the high watermark on privacy. Not only is technology making it increasingly easy to take take away privacy, people are voluntarily giving it up. The youngest generations are giving up on the secluded suburbs of their parents and opting-in to urban life and more communal living arrangements. We broadcast the smallest private details of our meals and triumphs for all our “friends” to see.

So what do you think? Is privacy an aberration in the normal state of human affairs? Should we not get so worked up about being watched?

Read widely. Read wisely.


The Birth And Death Of Privacy: 3,000 Years of History Told Through 46 Images by Greg Ferenstein in the Ferenstein Wire. (2o minute read)

For further reading check out my Weekend Reader edition on Loneliness