A (Very) Brief History of Privacy

by | Privacy Fundamentals

Defining privacy is useful but insufficient. We will soon confront regulations governing privacy that directly impact the way we do business. It is paramount that we understand not only privacy as a concept but privacy in context. In other words, how did we get here?

History of Privacy: Cultures + Beliefs 

Since time immemorial, all cultures, all over the world, have had some understanding of privacy as a concept. Some codified it into laws, while others integrated it with religious beliefs. For our purposes here, a few snippets will suffice to give you a sense of history and scope.

1. Ancient Greeks. 

The ancient Greeks, borrowing from the Egyptians, venerated the God of Silence and Secrets, Harpokrates. He is usually pictured as a mischievous little boy with his finger to his lips as if he is saying “Shhh!” (You’ve got to start somewhere, I guess!) But the Greeks, being geometry savvy, didn’t just include a secretive god in their pantheon. They also designed their living spaces by placing what we would consider window openings in such a way that it would limit the view of an outside observer peering in.

2. Ancient Chinese. 

The ancient Chinese, meanwhile, had—and still have—a very different and complex understanding of privacy. In broad terms, the word for privacy, “yin-si,” is a composite of two meanings: yin for “hidden” and si for “not for public disclosure.” As such, yin-si was meant to describe the concept of privacy, but in a negative light—the term carries the sense of a shameful secret.

According to scholars of ancient Chinese culture, the Chinese were more focused in the governance of the state, and in protecting the governance structure, than protecting the individual. This was ultimately codified in a collection of morality-driven laws governing behavior across many levels, eventually compiled by none other than Confucius. In his Analects, he wrote, “Do not watch what is improper. Do not listen to what is improper. Do not speak nor act improperly.” He also wrote that gossip and hearsay were improper and urged everyone to double-check their Internet sources before forwarding their mother-in-law’s conspiracy theory emails.

As tempting as it is to go through each ancient empire one by one, I’ll focus on the one thing they all had in common with regards to privacy: they didn’t have any! Certainly not as we understand—or struggle to understand—privacy today.

3. Middle Ages. 

Until the Middle Ages, privacy was not particularly possible. Most houses had one room. Most common spaces were open. To be sure, some cultures more than others took some steps to preserve what we today would identify as privacy, but in general, it was a time of communal living with little consideration of individual privacy.

I am not suggesting that this was necessarily by choice. But it was the reality for the vast majority of people, all over the world. To be sure, one would expect that they would rather have their own individual rooms, and so forth, but that was not possible, mostly for socioeconomic reasons. For that matter, Clellan Ford and Frank Beach in their Patterns of Sexual Behavior (1951) demonstrated that pretty much universally and irrespective of culture, humans would prefer their intimate moments to be private—even if that means taking them outside. (I suppose this is the reverse of “get a room,” back when rooms were not an option!)

4. Renaissance. 

The ones who did “have a room,” as we got closer and closer to the Renaissance, were the rich, living in their castles and palaces. It’s around this time that the notion of privacy starts getting some traction. In fact, the historian Peter Smith declared that “Privacy (is) the ultimate achievement of the Renaissance!” Interestingly, privacy was made possible by the intersection of technology (namely, Gutenberg’s press) and the Catholic Church. It might seem counterintuitive, but a mandatory one-on-one confession between the individual and God (as decreed in the Great Council’s declaration of 1215), was a dramatic departure from the communal way of enforcing morality. Then, once printed bibles became commonplace, the devout could study and contemplate in private isolation, further distancing themselves from the community. A dramatic shift was underway, one that would take a couple of centuries to take hold, away from the “community” and toward individual privacy.

The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom.
― William O. Douglas (Dissenting opinion, Public Utilities Commission v. Pollak [1952])

The fun started in 1604 with England’s attorney general Sir Edward Coke and his famous ruling in Semayne’s Case. The ruling has become popularly known as “The Castle Doctrine,” because it starts with “ . . . the house of every one is to him as his Castle and Fortress as well for defence against injury and violence, as for his repose.” But in fact Coke’s writing is substantially more complex than just that notion. He went on to clarify the specifics of how this fortress is to be used and also set limits on how the authorities (at the time: the Sheriff) could gain access. Think warrants! A good start!

Speaking of warrants, we’re now moving into the era where privacy gained some protection under the law. Of course, how much protection was offered and in what circumstances has changed a lot in the past three hundred years—and is still evolving, even today.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *