Privacy is a human right. To many, it is a given. It is prerequisite for individualism, free will, and democracy. It provides a platform for free speech. Privacy allows for personal security, and in its absence we are open to countless threats, both on our bodies and on our minds.

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Privacy is the ownership of one's physical and mental reality. It is among the building blocks of society, yet personal privacy is fading. This decline is not a result of an active effort on part of corporations or governments to take this privacy from us. Instead, it is a result of our willingness as a society to give it away for perceived convenience or security. The governments and corporations are simply picking it up off the ground where we left it.

Before discussing privacy, we must tackle the question of what privacy means. The word is abstract and vague, and no single definition can capture all of its nuance. The notion of privacy can exist on an personal level, wherein individuals can control what information is known about them (though this is a very narrow conception of privacy). Merriam Webster defines privacy as being “the state of being alone,” “the state of being away from people,” and “the state of being away from public attention.” While these definitions undoubtedly refer to “privacy,” they fail to convey the nonphysical abstractions of the term. Other definitions, such “the right to be let alone,” (coined by Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren in their extremely influential 1890 paper on privacy2) also fail to capture the full breadth of the term.

One could look to other languages for a clearer definition of privacy, however many languages simply do not have an equivalent word. Italian uses the Anglicism la privacy, and Indonesian has Privasi. Russian combines “secrecy”, “private life”, and “solitude” in order to form privacy, yet the terms are still nonequivalent. The struggle in finding a word for privacy in other languages is not a result of poor translation. It is instead a result of our own abstract and inconsistent definitions of privacy, ranging from “secrecy” to “solitude.”

It is also worth noting that conceptions of privacy vary greatly around the world. An American may have a very different conception than a Russian, just as a Japanese person’s notion of privacy may differ from a South African’s. An American may consider privacy as not being observed or disturbed, while a Russian may view privacy as the state of secrecy. These inconsistencies in definitions exist not only between societies, but also between individuals. An internet-native may view privacy in the context of modern technology, while someone older may view privacy as simply a physical state. These inconsistencies in what privacy truly is leads to inevitable differences in what is considered to be an “invasion of privacy,” and can quickly hinder discussion.

Privacy, despite its presence in both ordinary, legal, and philosophical language, has no single and widely accepted definition. The difficulty in defining privacy can be attributed to the fact that it does not refer to only one idea. Unlike private, which is relatively unambiguous (not public), privacy means much more than simply “in private.” The word privacy is an extension of private. Privacy is the ability to control what is known about oneself. It is the right to be left alone. It is a state of complete control. It’s limiting access to yourself to others, both physically and mentally, paving the way for identity, person-hood, confidentiality, and dignity. It is a prerequisite for intimacy. It is secrecy. It is a fundamental aspect of free will, and a necessary element of society that must be protected.

The trouble with defining privacy is that it is not one one distinct idea. Instead, it is an umbrella term encompassing many related but different ideas. For simplicity, privacy will be defined as the ability to express oneself as one chooses, with control over what is and is not conveyed to the observer. This is an intentionally vague definition, and by no means can pass as a catch-all definition for the evidently undefinable term. Instead, through its ambiguity, it is logical in most use cases.

Privacy is the feeling that you are not being followed, and that your actions will not be judged, scrutinized, or even known. It is the ability to selectively reveal what is known about you, allowing for individualism and personal security. Today, it is commonly viewed as a trade off, a necessary loss, for security. Instead, privacy is a necessary element of security, and as privacy fades, so does security. As privacy fades, so does freedom.

Never before in history have the means existed for complete loss of privacy. While privacy has been threatened before, the technology to maintain the surveillance did not exist, and it could not be applied to the masses. While there were attempts, there were few successes. SHAMROCK, an NSA program which began in 1945, screened nearly all telegrams sent from the United States. The program proved to be too labor intensive, however, and was discontinued in 1975. Another NSA program attempted to eavesdrop on all phone calls through dragnet surveillance. This program failed for many of the same reasons that SHAMROCK did. Then, the technology simply did not exist to allow for automation, and the human labor required was too great a cost for the minimal (and arguably negative) returns in security. Today, however, with the quick adoption of the internet and other communication technologies, massive infringements on individual privacy have become not only practical but prevalent.

Privacy is under attack.

Further reading and sources