Privacy: Not A Modern Concept

Policy arguments and analyses abound with ahistorical argument concerning technology and privacy. In these arguments, privacy is often presented as a modern concept, one that came into focus with the rise of the commercial internet.

Privacy is not a modern concept; it is deeply embedded in the values of Western culture.[1] Nor are conflicts among technology, business practices, and privacy a new issue. Historians often point to the development of the United States Postal Service as an example. Prior to the creation of it, mail was carried privately, often collected and stored taverns until travel to the next destination.[2] A number of factors eroded the confidentiality and integrity of these mails: letters were relatively rare, and aroused curiosity among those who routed them to their intended destination. The privacy enhancing technology of the time—the wax seal could fail because of tampering or rough handling. The paper envelope was not yet invented, and encryption schemes remained primitive.

To fill the gaps created by inadequate technology and practice, Ben Franklin, who was commissioned by the British to run the colonial mails, had carriers swear not to open the messages they carried.[3] This prohibition was eventually codified in federal law, and today, first class mail is secure against opening except where the government has a warrant.

Conflicts concerning technology are as old as civilization. Indeed, long before the Internet, technological conflicts occupied debates among thinkers. The idea of technological knowledge, which was thought of as knowledge of craft as opposed to knowledge of life, was discussed by Plato.[4]

[1] Consider the five volume treatise by Ariés and Duby, A History of Private Life (Philippe Ariés and Georges Duby, eds. 1987) or Richard Sennett’s discussion of the evolving and shifting ideas of “public” in Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (1974).

[2] David H. Flaherty, Privacy in Colonial New England (1967).

[3] Robert Ellis Smith, Ben Franklin’s Web Site (2000).

[4] The Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition (Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek, eds. 2003).

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