The Long and Messy History of Privacy

[Enjoy this guest post by Shane Lin, a PhD Student in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia. He came to W&L to give a workshop through a Mellon-funded collaboration with the Scholars’ Lab at UVA. More information about this initiative can be found here. His post is cross-listed on the Scholars’ Lab blog.]

I was invited by Brandon Walsh, the Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow at Washington and Lee and a former Scholars’ Lab Praxis fellow of my cohort, to come to W&L as part of an ongoing collaboration between W&L and the Scholars’ Lab. The program pairs UVA graduate students with W&L undergraduate students studying a relevant subject and gives the former the opportunity to expose the latter to new modes of digital scholarship.

I was fortunate to be matched with Brandon’s own English composition class: “Writing in the Age of Digital Surveillance”. My dissertation research is on the history of cryptography and the construction of digital privacy rights from the mid-1970s through the 1990s and involves a text analysis project examining influential privacy-related Usenet newsgroups and mailing list messages, so this seemed like a perfect match.

My first instinct was to give a quick rehash of my work, an introduction to modern cryptography, and a few hands-on exercises in code-making and code-breaking. I could also reuse a demonstration I used from the last time I taught undergraduate students: how to anonymously buy cocaine on the darkweb with cryptocurrency.

Yet none of these approaches seemed quite appropriate. Brandon had done a good job. The syllabus showed that the students had engaged very closely with the ramifications of modern technology on surveillance, drawing on thinkers like Siva Vaidhyanathan and Clay Shirky. My research, though focused narrowly on cryptography, interfaced with so many of the big ideas that the students had already broached. I didn’t want to bore them with historical detail (“scholarly rigor”!) or to just rehash the broader themes they were already well familiar with. Nor did I think that it was entirely appropriate to give a workshop on cryptography tools or on digital research techniques in a writing class. It didn’t seem very useful to throw prime factorization or Python web scraping libraries at these unsuspecting students for a single class.

I was supposed to speak about DH and digital technology, but Brandon assured me that I had wide latitude to choose the topic. So I decided to hardly mention computers at all and talk instead about privacy in the context of the fundamental idea of history: things change. Privacy is not a fixed principle. The abstract notion of privacy rights is a very modern construction and even the practical, everyday conception of physical privacy has radically shifted through history, owing much to the affordances of technologies we may not think of as having much to do at all with privacy.

I started by examining evidence of privacy in ancient Greece and how quantitative research on ruins has shown that prioritization of privacy was built into the architecture of Mediterranean homes. We discussed the rise of public bathing and its shifting practices and cultural significance under the Roman empire. And we spoke of the etymology of the word “eavesdrop” and its political connotations during the rein of Henry VIII. This was followed by a tour through the communications infrastructure of the early American republic and the role of the revolutionary and partisan presses and the post office in democratizing privacy by broadening access to both subversive ideas and the means to convey them. Finally, we discussed the dynamic legal conception of privacy, from the Fourth Amendment’s originally weak protections against searches to the landmark 1967 Katz v. United States decision that codified an expectation of privacy based solely in the realm of ideas.

Digital technology was the end-point of this crooked journey. Though they have dramatically altered our understandings of privacy and the topography of power that supports such conceptions, the rights that these technologies challenged or championed were forged through centuries of history. Focusing on just the most recent debate wrongly implies that digital technologies are uniquely potent mechanisms and that the shifting landscape of privacy in our tremulous times represents a singular historical moment. I thought it was important to put our modern, contested notion of privacy in broader context, a context that includes the changes wrought by aqueducts, fire pits, chimneys, printing presses, bureaucratic organization, and other earlier technologies of decidedly analog mode.

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