In 17th century Puritan Connecticut it was illegal for a person to live alone. It was believed that living apart from others could make you an easy mark for the devil. And most people wouldn’t have dreamt of living on their own. The work of daily life required many hands and throughout much of history — certainly until the 19th century, most people lived within the intimate surveillance created by limited physical mobility (how far you could walk).
Pockets of this communal life have lingered. A woman who grew up in the mid-20th century in a small town in the south told me that as a teenager she sat on her boyfriend’s lap on his front porch, and her mother knew about it before she managed to walk the several blocks home. No cell phones. No email. Not even many landlines. Just word of mouth. Life has mostly been communal, and only over the past few hundred years, as we have recognized the worth of individual experience, equality and liberty, has privacy been rightly named as the critical ingredient in sustaining these values.
Indeed, people in the United States have claimed the right to privacy more vociferously than people anywhere else in the world. The feisty and irreverent social reformer Victoria Woodhull was the first American I’ve found who publically declared privacy a right. In 1872, she wrote, “I believe in the law of peace, in the right of privacy, in the sanctity of individual relations.” And, more famously in 1879, Thomas Cooley claimed that we each possess “the right to be let alone.”
Americans cherish this right to be let alone and understand it is the keystone of our autonomy, of our entrepreneurial energy — and a critical part of sustaining our democracy. Occasionally, fear makes us toss it to the wind. But mostly we understand its value. (By contrast, totalitarian societies thrive by making their citizens feel always watched, while keeping government doings secret.)
Having written and thought about privacy for some time now, I believe the best way to understand it is as an ecosystem that can be healthy or endangered. Its robustness comes from balance. Not enough privacy, and people start to feel over-inhibited, oppressed and paranoid. Too much morphs into isolation and alienation.
Right now, in this time of extraordinary change, our privacy ecosystem is at risk. Our capacity to spy on each other using electronic surveillance, social media, and bio metric devices (not to mention DNA testing — a huge civil liberties problem that has not received adequate safeguarding) has grown at such an extraordinary rate that we are only beginning to wrap our minds around the real implications.
Since 9/11, the government has worked at creating a perception of heightened safety by increasing surveillance. While it would like citizens to believe that this surveillance benefits us all, the evidence is not at all clear. Much of it is secret, so we’re being asked to take a lot on faith.
Yes, we need a lively public debate. But we need more than that. We need to establish a powerful office in the government whose mission is to track and monitor and protect privacy — and by so doing, to secure its rightful place in our democracy.
Privacy is too critical to our way of life, the threats to it now too overwhelming, to simply manage it through market forces, or public outcry, or random stabs and panics. We need to focus on re-establishing a balance between the real safety enhancements offered by small amounts of surveillance, and the autonomy, liberty, and sense of unobserved well-being that is only protected when there is adequate privacy.
Janna Smith is the author of “Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life.”