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A Short History of Privacy

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Tutorial Summary

This tutorial provides a way for newcomers and foreign visitors to get up-to-date. It covers early wiretapping, the Census, postal confidentiality, and commercial exploitation of an individualâ€™s image. At each stage, new technology like the high-speed press, telephone, telegraph, camera, computer, and the Internet motivated reforms. The tutorial moves to automated databases and â€œfair information principles,â€ then PCs, email, encryption, and the Internet in the 1990s, along with targeted marketing. Covering legal, technological, and cultural developments, the course is based on the acclaimed book â€œBen Franklinâ€™s Web Siteâ€ by Robert Ellis Smith, the tutorial leader.

Detailed Description

This tutorial will provide a way for newcomers to the privacy field and foreign visitors to get up-to-date on the current issues and to know how they evolved over the past decades.

The session begins with an account of privacy in the U.S. since its founding to World War II, and to a lesser extent in Europe â€“ covering early electronic surveillance, concern about the Census and the confidentiality of the mail, and legal cases about commercial exploitation of an individualâ€™s image or persona. At each stage it was new technology that motivated worries about privacy â€“ the camera, the high-speed press, the telephone and telegraph, the computer, and the Internet.

Then the tutorial moves to concern in the 1960s and 1970s about large automated databases in business and government and the development in North America and Europe of â€œfair information principlesâ€ in personal-data collection. This led to enactment of laws on both sides of the Atlantic affecting credit reporting, government files, and student records.

The landscape changed remarkably with the coming of personal computers, email, and the Internet in the 1990s. Now computing power was decentralized, and a huge majority of the population exposed their personal information without knowing the consequences. At the same time came a trend in direct marketing to exploit personal information about consumers so that advertising could be targeted towards them specifically.

Now, in the first decade of the new century, the emphasis is on locational information â€“ ATMs, cell phones, GPS, aerial and satellite surveillance â€“ as distinguished from data collection. Having others know your whereabouts is now perhaps more threatening than having them know how you spend your money.

This tutorial, which will cover legal, technological, and cultural developments, is based on the acclaimed book â€œBen Franklinâ€™s Web Site: Privacy and Curiosity From Plymouth Rock to the Internetâ€ by Robert Ellis Smith, the tutorial leader. It was last offered at CFP in the year 2000 in Toronto.

Taking the tutorial will vastly enhance the participantsâ€™ understanding of the myriad of concepts and references they will encounter later in the week.


The course is based on the acclaimed book â€œBen Franklinâ€™s Web Site: Curiosity and Privacy from Plymouth Rock to the Internetâ€ by Robert Ellis Smith, the tutorial leader. He will present the course alone. He is an attorney. He has covered the privacy field since 1974 and was personally involved in much of the history of this issue. He has written the definitive account of privacy in U.S. history. He can include references to Canada and Europe. He offered this tutorial at CFP in Toronto in the year 2000. He is experienced as a lecturer and teacher at Brown University, University of Maryland, Harvard College, and scores of professional conferences and government briefings here and abroad.

If you have enrolled in this session, please send me ideas for what materials, time periods, or concepts you want me to cover. Robert Ellis Smith

Background Resources

Discussions and Feeds

discussions of relevant topics on the CFP blog and elsewhere around the web; coming soon

Excerpt from "Ben Franklin's Web Site,"

by the tutorial leader.  

This will give you background on our session at CFP on "a Short History of Privacy"


Since this continent was settled from Europe, Americans have quested for personal privacy, first in our physical space and later in the use of our personal information.

At the same time, Americans have always been extremely curious. Virtually all visitors from abroad say that about us. We are too willing to intrude into the affairs of others and, by the same token, too willing to furnish strangers with personal information about ourselves. No other culture has more outlets for gathering information and disseminating it â€“ â€œtalk radioâ€ and television news 24 hours a day, a gaggle of weekly magazines, ubiquitous tabloid newspapers and published memoirs with personal revelations by celebrities and non-celebrities, news and information within reach of virtually all Americans, in the car, at home, by computer modem, and even by earphones while alone in the woods. We seem to be enamored with the idea of privacy, but probably more enamored with the idea of learning more and more about our friends and neighbors â€“ and about the celebrities among us.

By understanding this duality in the American character we can come to understand the current conflicts over protecting privacy. We Americans have institutionalized this duality in our Constitu-tion, which protects the sanctity of each private residence at the same time that it requires each of us to report our whereabouts to the government at least once every ten years. The same Constitution that protects the right to remain silent gives unprecedented protection to authors and news reporters to find out about other people and write about them.

Just what is privacy? It is the desire by each of us for physical space where we can be free of interruption, intrusion, embarrassment, or accountability and the attempt to control the time and manner of disclosures of personal information about ourselves. In the first half of our history, Americans seemed to pursue the first, physical privacy; in the second half â€“ after the Civil War â€“ Americans seemed in pursuit of the second, â€œinformational privacy.â€

Each time when there was renewed interest in protecting privacy it was in reaction to new technology. First, in the years before 1890, came cameras, telephones, and high-speed publishing; second, around 1970, came the development of computers; and third, in the late 1990s, the coming of personal computers and the World Wide Web brought renewed interest in this subject. In each case, the rhetoric had similar sounds to it. What worried people was not so much the technology; what worried them was that it was in the hands of large and powerful organizations.

The coming of personal computers and the Internet has changed the equation in significant ways. In this new era, individuals and small organizations have gained cyberpower that seems comparable to what large organizations can effectively manage. A solitary individual can now publish a news periodical and reach as many readers as his or her content warrants. A solitary individual now possesses the technical wherewithal to intrude into anotherâ€™s business, to keep information on other persons, and even to alter the content of information in the computer systems of large organizations. Individuals, like large organizations, can now snoop into the private activities of others and record them on audio or video tape. And many individuals have attempted to do just that. At the height of the Watergate scandal, a columnist for The Washington Post, Nicholas von Hoffman, observed, â€œWe still know more about our government than it knows about us.â€ But the balance is shifting.

In the end, the question of privacy throughout our history comes down to the relationship of the individual to large organizations and the method by which those large organizations foster and use new technology. The theme of the story ahead is privacy vs. curiosity, but the leitmotif is surely the impact of new technology on our individual rights and our autonomy.

Copyright (c) Robert Ellis Smith. Please do not copy, even after it is edited.


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