The ultimate negative liberty: Privacy

The right to be left alone
By EDITORIAL  |  September 22, 2010

Privacy, in the scheme of things, is a relatively new invention. Our ancestors began walking on their hind legs about 200,000 years ago, but it took them another 150,000 years before they got around to building cities and thus having anything worth being private about.

In An Essay on Civil Society, published in Edinburg in 1767, Adam Ferguson observed, "Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization." Privacy has advanced from an especially Western idea that is particularly intense among citizens of the United Kingdom and United States.

Think about it. The cliché, "A man's home is his castle," is a very Anglo-Saxon concept. It implies that within his or her own four walls, the individual is sovereign.

When Henry VIII was King of England, 200 years before Ferguson analyzed humanity's march from rudeness to civilization, the monarch was served by a Groom of the Stool, whose job it was to minister to the royal backside. Because of its proximity to the royal person, this was a highly prestigious and much sought-after post. Today, to call someone an "ass wipe" is to provoke a punch in the nose or its civilized equivalent, a slander suit — or less aggressive and more refined still, to defriend the brute on Facebook.

For practical purposes, the modern American ideal of privacy was established in a dissent to the 1928 Supreme Court wiretapping decision Olmstead v. the United States. Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, "the protection guaranteed by the amendments [of the Constitution] is much broader in scope. The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man's spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect . . . They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions, and their sensations. They conferred as against the government the right to be left alone — the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men."

When the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, it asserted a right nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, a right to privacy, to women's sovereignty over their own bodies. Conservatives protested — and still protest — that this is extralegal. Liberals, on the other hand, assume that privacy is a right so basic that it needs no enumeration, that it is implicit in the words of the Declaration of Independence: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

The End of Privacy
The world is watching: If you don't want the government, big industry, and some 15-year-old to know your secret, you're shit out of luck. And so far, no one knows what to do about it. By Mike Miliard.

Google: The ultimate Cockblocker. By Scott Fayner.

Friends with benefits: When you can't dress, eat, or go to the bathroom on your own, privacy takes a back seat to trust. By Eugenia Williamson.

In the age of Facebook and Google, to cite just two of the most powerful and transformative digitizers, the right to be left alone may sound quaint, but it should not. Brandeis's words may still be the best working definition of what society has — and risks losing.

Other cultures approach these things from a different angle. In Russian, there is no single word for privacy, which is a complex thought suggesting a range of possibilities from solitude, to secrecy, to family life.

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