The History of privacy

America’s’s concerns about government intrusion are older than the country itself, says Neil Richards, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.imgres-1

“If you want to talk about privacy, what would be less private than having a platoon of Redcoats living in your house, eating your food, listening to your conversations?” Richards asks. “… In the Constitution itself — the quartering of soldiers, the execution of general warrants — all have to do with the privacy of the home, the privacy of papers. NPR says:

“And though the Constitution doesn’t use the word ‘privacy,’ the separation of individuals and their information and their homes and their persons from the state is a theme that runs throughout the Bill of Rights.”

“Concerns about privacy ballooned again in the camera age. “Privacy as a theme in American law, and really in American public discussion, arose in 1890,” Richards says. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis — just a young lawyer at the time — wrote an article for The Harvard Law Review about the personal intrusions of the new “snap cameras.”

“The history of privacy in the U.S. is closely tied with the history of the press, and by the 1960s, that had become an embattled relationship. The ’60s, Richards says, were a major moment for American privacy, in part because of the growth of “pre-modern computers.” Back then, databases were called “data banks,” and they made people nervous.

“At same time, you have the Supreme Court handing down cases on obscenity possession and also on wiretapping — protecting privacy to read, and privacy to talk with one’s confidants over the phone,” he says.

“Then, in the 1970s, came President Nixon, who Richards calls “the great villain in the story of American privacy.” The Watergate scandal prompted a push for privacy protection and after Nixon’s resignation, Congress passed the Privacy Act of 1974. The act “regulates data held by the government,” Richards explains. “They were going to extend it to private sector data but never quite got around to it.”Another turning point for privacy in America was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.”I can remember living in Washington at the time,” Richards recalls. “And even committed civil libertarians were saying, ‘Just give the government what [they] want. We’re terrified. People are dying.'”

“Today, Richards says he believes that the American relationship to privacy is one of ambivalence: “On one hand, we want to be safe from crime and from terrorism,” he says. “On the other, we want to be able to share information on Facebook, we want to be able to talk on the phone, we use cloud services.” And yet, when Americans find out — as they did on June 6 — that the government is collecting information about their communications, many people feel violated.”The challenge that we’re facing is how to strike the right balance,” Richards says. “Realizing that information is never or rarely purely private — but at the same time, perfect security is also equally impossible.”



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