Privacy, Corona and the Padlock

These are extraordinary times to reflect on privacy, as the corona virus has sent us into isolation. Worldwide, millions of people are struggling with a privacy that was not a choice: lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, quarantines, curfews and isolation are a new public reality that has put privacy issues under strain. In this blog entry, I will reflect on the effect of Covid-19 on privacy – a volatile concept that is hard to define or visualize and therefore difficult protect.

Fig. 1: Shutterstock stock footage for “privacy”











Privacy denotes that experience which withdraws from the eyes, the ears, the hands and the judgement of others. Privacy also withdraws from definition and visualization. As a complex, multilayered and shifting concept, it resists being pinned down, be it verbally or visually. In stark contrast to this inherent ambiguity, privacy is usually visualized with a padlock in the media. A google image search – and more precisely, a stock photo data bank search – for “privacy” results mostly in padlock related images. Figure 1 shows how (digital) privacy is often pictured with a variation of a padlock that is composed of “0” or “1” symbols, in reference to the binary digits (bits) underlying all digital information. Photos, as opposed to renderings, often feature simple metal padlocks – the kind you can buy or borrow at public libraries or swimming pools for your locker.

If we read stock images as modern-day emblems – and the Shutterstock or Getty websites as a modern-day interpretation of Cesare Ripa’s famous 1645 emblem book Iconologia – then the visual communication of privacy is linked to the archetypical padlock. This choice of an icon that is tied to binaries, such as open or closed, mine or not mine, accessible or inaccessible, inside or outside, is somewhat surprising, because privacy relies precisely on all the nuances that lie between these kinds of opposing extremes.

Fig. 2: Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, 1645







Instead of privacy, the padlock evokes confinement – two states that have become strange bedfellows during the current corona crisis, which is dominated by headlines related to lockdowns. Private homes are taking on a new meaning during this pandemic: rather than places of refuge for our “right to be let alone”[1] they are now standing in for office space, day cares, schools, gyms, restaurants, cafés, etc. Most importantly, they are places of confinement: The home is now the only place where millions of citizens globally are allowed to be.[2]

Relating to the context of both privacy and corona, the padlock played a ghastly role in a past pandemic.  During the devastating bout of bubonic plague in 1665 in London (75000 plague deaths in London that year), the home as prison was a dreadful reality. Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Dafoe devotes a significant portion of his account of the plague in A Journal of the Plague Year (1719), to those who were locked into their homes because of the disease. For example, the narrator remembers the following anecdote:

At another house, […] a whole family was shut up and locked in because the maid-servant was taken sick. […] so the door was marked with a red cross, a padlock on the outside, […] and a watchman set to keep the door, according to public order.[3]

The family was thus doomed to infection: locked in, to death, at home. Some such prisoners escaped by distracting or even killing their guard, and by fleeing through back doors, back alleys and neighbors’ gardens. The narrator is empathetic “as the people shut up or imprisoned so were guilty of no crime, only shut up because miserable.”[4]

While in 1665 the looming danger of a closed padlock and terminal confinement in private terrified the public, today, the privacy padlocks are opened to monitor and contain the virus: Amidst the deeply troubling accounts of exponentially increasing death tolls, overwhelmed hospitals, a collapsing global economy and ever-tightening lockdown rules, there is little room for coverage about privacy infringements.[5] Yet these transgressions are the side effects of global collaborations between cellphone companies, social media corporations, public transport providers and governments. In many countries, anonymized cellphone metadata is currently helping governments to monitor citizen movement.[6] For example, in France and in Germany this metadata is used to assess curfew and social distancing adherence. Spain, South Korea, China, and Taiwan have launched apps to track Covid-19 cases and to provide their citizens with information on whether they have come into close contact with known carriers.[7] In these instances, private data becomes public as individuals’ health status and personal movements are revealed.

Typical corona stock footage. This image is for example used by the Danish police to visualize Covid-19.









Some of the extraordinary efforts, that are only legal during “states of emergency”, have brought to light previously undisclosed data hoarding practices. For example, Covid-19 responses have revealed to the Israeli public that since 2002, Shin Bet, the country’s Internal Security Agency, has been collecting cellphone metadata. This includes subscriber identity, the identities of call recipients and initiators, account payments and geolocation information.[8] So far, Shin Bet had “never disclosed details about what information it collects, how that data is safeguarded, whether or when any of it is destroyed or deleted, who has access to it and under what conditions, or how it is used.”[9] Now this data trove has come into the limelight, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized Shin Bet to use the data to identify and inform citizens who were in close contact with known virus carriers.

The virus has turned private data – the geolocation and the health of individual citizens – into a public concern, as individuals now depend on society to act on their behalf. This attitude resonates with a Hong Kong-based technology lawyer’s explanation of the use of private data for China’s “close contact app”: “data is not seen as something to be locked down, it’s something that can be used.”[10] Also outside China, the accepted use of private data in a public health emergency point to a shift in perception: Governments or corporations, usually seen as inappropriately gathering and using private data on citizens and consumers, are now the ones who can safeguard individuals by appropriating private data and imposing protective measures on the population.[11] In 1985, sociologist Barrington Moore Jr. described the reason for this type of fluidity about the preservation or privacy in psychological terms:

The desire for privacy, in the sense of protection or escape from other human beings, emerges when an individual becomes subject to social obligations that that individual cannot meet or does not want to meet. On the other hand, this desire for privacy can evaporate if the person develops a feeling of dependence on the people who are the source of the onerous obligations.[12]

While the corona crisis has created a (temporary) shift in the perception of privacy and data politics, it has also brought privacy and solitude, usually a desirable quality enjoyed only rarely, into an uneasy excess. Much media coverage has been devoted to the loneliness caused by prolonged solitary stays at home in lockdown. But beyond seclusion, there is a more drastic implication to a privacy: Without other people and a public life, meaninglessness quickly prevails. In the confining privacy of our homes, even if it is experienced with family members, we suddenly feel that deprivation inherent in privacy, that is at odds with the usual positive connotations of privacy as human right. Hannah Arendt reminds us that during the Greek and Roman antiquity, before Christian ideals of interiority came to the fore, privacy was on par with privation: “the absence of others”[13] was a total deficit. A private life was a life that could never amount to anything concrete. In private, the human being could not fully appear. She explains that

everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life—the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses—lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance. […] The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.[14]

Can we understand the usage of anonymized data for corona curbing measures as a way of bringing ‘deprivatized and deindividualized’ private actions out of their ‘shadowy’ existence into meaningful and useful public reality? The virus, which spreads beyond all thresholds that demarcate private and public life, disrupts not only everything that forms part of our public lives – work, entertainment, educational and health institutions, parliaments, etc. – it also reconfigures previously unquestionable privacy needs. Although an open padlock might be more appropriate, the corona virus is visualized as a sphere surrounded by spikes. The visuals vary in color and in detail: a few resemble massage balls, some feature furry spikes, others sprout small clusters of suction cups. A Covid-19 virus closeup image tells us nothing about exponential contagion rates, death tolls, respirator shortages, inflatable temporary hospitals, closed borders in a borderless Europe, indefinitely staying at home, cancelled weddings and postponed funerals. Thinking with Arendt, this image remains as unreal as the data produced by a life spent completely in private.

Fig. 4: Privacy and Covid-19: The author enhanced a Shutterstock photo used for visualizing digital privacy: The privacy padlock is unlocked by an incoming stream of Covid-19 renditions to release a steady flow of digital data











Covid-19 then has a double effect in relation to our private lives: First, it confines many of us to the private realm of our homes which are now subject to a pre-capitalist multiplicity of activities and the eyes of our co-workers and friends through cameras and screens. Second, as the widespread, virus-caused “state of emergency” has affected the management of private data, citizens seem relatively willing to trade the ownership of their private data for the greater good – especially because this data is now immediately and non-commercially useful in unprecedented ways. Temporarily, our public lives are lived from home and our private data is treated as belonging to society at large.

In Dafoe’s account of the London plague, public authorities could lock in citizens into their private homes turning houses into jails. Households could also lock themselves in, turning private property into fortresses. Today, private data is unlocked for public health. And private homes are unlocked to cater for a variety of functions, far beyond private leisure and inhabitation. Dafoe’s capitulation on the desolate imprisoning of plague-ridden households rings true also for today’s unlocking of private matters under governments in states of emergency: “But it was authorized by a law, it had the public good in view as the end chiefly aimed at, and all the private injuries that were done by the putting it in execution must be put to the account of the public benefit.” The current unusual situation of quarantine and movement monitoring once again draws attention to privacy as an ever-shifting construct, that continuously requires close contextualization and care.





[1] (Warren and Brandeis, 1890, p. 193).

[2] At the time of writing, Italy alone charged 40 000 of the 60 million curfewed inhabitants with lockdown violations. See for example: Lorenzo Tondo, “Italy Charges More than 40,000 People with Violating Lockdown,” The Guardian, March 18, 2020, sec. World news,

[3] “A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe,” accessed March 25, 2020,

[4] “A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe.”

[5] See for example: “Commission Tells Carriers to Hand over Mobile Data in Coronavirus Fight,” POLITICO, March 23, 2020,

[6] During a public health emergency, GDPR (Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation) changes. See for example “Coronavirus Adds an Extra Layer of Challenge to Collection and Handling of Health Data Under the GDPR,” CPO Magazine, March 23, 2020,

[7] For a collection of instances of data infringement in response to Covid-19 see “Tracking the Global Response to COVID-19 | Privacy International,” accessed March 22, 2020,

[8] David M. Halbfinger, Isabel Kershner, and Ronen Bergman, “To Track Coronavirus, Israel Moves to Tap Secret Trove of Cellphone Data,” The New York Times, March 16, 2020, sec. World,

[9] Halbfinger, Kershner, and Bergman.

[10] “China Launches Coronavirus ‘close Contact’ App,” BBC News, February 11, 2020, sec. Technology,

[11] For more, see “The Value and Ethics of Using Phone Data to Monitor Covid-19,” Wired, accessed March 25, 2020,

[12] Barrington Moore Jr., “Privacy,” Society 35, no. 2 (February 1998): 287–99.

[13] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 58.

[14] Arendt, 50.

Speculations on the Private Life of a Fictive Milkmaid

Fig. 1: Johannes Vermeer, Milkmaid (1657/1658)

A problem we often come across at the Centre for Privacy Studies is how to extract the truly private from our sources. Can a letter ever really be a source of private information, considering that the most private notes would usually be burnt? Similarly, how much insight can we gain from paintings of private homes? This question was raised during a seminar at the Centre on the private in early modern Dutch paintings of interiors. The paintings explored in this seminar somewhat intimately reveal the private context of Dutch upper-class homes. Some of them display privately exhibited luxury, for example Pieter de Hooch’s Leisure Time in an Elegant Setting (1629–1684), where gilded leather hangings feature prominently, or Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (1670–71), which shows a bejeweled lady writing a possibly private letter in the company of her maid in a handsome interior. The implicit self-staging of the patrons inevitably stands at odds with privacy and makes these interior paintings a difficult source for privacy studies. The truly private – the messy, the embarrassing and the ugly – is likely to have been removed from view, hidden behind curtains, inside coffers and beyond the picture frame.

Johannes Vermeer’s Milkmaid (1657/1658) is especially evocative in terms of the hidden, the secret and the private. The painting has remained an important narrative object for 360 years.[1] Like the Mona Lisa, the Milkmaid seems to carry a secret, an intriguing story, hidden behind a thick layer of paint. Onlookers have speculated profusely for three-and-a-half centuries about the milkmaid’s private life,[2] or rather her employer’s. Since the milkmaid was depicted at work, if there was a secret hidden somewhere in the adjacent private world of the painting, then it was most likely linked to her master.

As the truly private is mostly concealed from view, I will engage in an exercise of speculation informed by the existing art historical analysis of the Milkmaid and some of the actual or overpainted objects in the painting as a starting point to (re)construct the potential or imagined private life in a Dutch home in the early modern period. To initiate this conjecture on the private, we might imagine Vermeer’s painting as a contemporary photograph. While portraying the milkmaid, Vermeer the photographer might have instructed his assistant to “remove that dishcloth from the nail on the wall.” And if you picture it hanging there as in my photoshopped version (Fig. 2) – it does interfere disadvantageously with the milkmaid’s cotton bonnet.

But even beyond the possibly removed objects from the actual scene, the painting’s own materiality embodies hidden entities. Previous detectives of privacy have examined the painting through x-rays to uncover two paint-cloaked objects: A world map and a clothes basket had for some time coexisted with the milkmaid, before Vermeer painted them over and replaced the basket with a foot warmer. The latter, simultaneously conjuring sentiments of warmth and the lack thereof, has been written about extensively in terms of iconography that evokes a woman’s sexuality, since the coals inside the little box would not only warm her feet but all other body parts hidden underneath her layered skirt.[3] The foot warmer may thus have accentuated the prevailing reputation of kitchen maids – and especially milkmaids – as sexually available.[4] Next to the footwarmer there is a tile of cupid[5] and of a travelling man with a walking stick – two males with pointy devices, at least one of them most certainly aimed at a female (heart). With these loaded symbols in mind, I will now dive into two speculations on privacy to go beyond common clichées and to endow both the painter and the subject with more subtle storytelling and agency respectively.

Fig. 2: Speculative Enhancement of the Vermeer’s Milkmaid

Speculation 1 (based on the x-rayed, overpainted objects):

At first, Vermeer, relatively well-off and possibly a little biased when it came to lower working-class people, whose lives were naturally transmitted via stereotypes, imagined the milkmaid in love with a sailor when he saw her wistful smile.[6] He painted the map behind her, as a clue for the onlooker to the “back of her mind” – her love, out in the world, while she waited in another family’s home, tending to their dairy until her love would return and marry her. The girl is a symbol of virtuous work – diligence and patience. The clothes basket conjures more work, and there is no cupid lurking to distract her from her patient wait. This version would have been a little flat: the milkmaid as a stereotype condemned to a life on hold, her only realm of action entirely determined by her employers, for as long as her sailor was at sea, himself subject to the volatilities of the weather and a captain.

Speculation 2 (based on the objects that were added later):

The type of foot warmer that Vermeer then replaced the basket with, also appears in several paintings by Pieter de Hooch. For example in A Mother with Two Children and a Maid with a Pail by a Fireplace, 1675–1680 (Fig. 3), with which de Hooch depicted his day’s emphasis on womanhood as nurturing: The lady of the house is nursing her baby, with one foot resting on a foot warmer, while her older daughter is petting the cat, mimicking her mother’s gestures. In this picture, a maid carries in a bucket – she is part of scene, but clearly outside the nursing realm of her employer’s family.

Fig. 3 Pieter de Hooch, A Mother with Two Children and a Maid with a Pail by a Fireplace, 1675–1680

Inspired by the role of the foot warmer in nursing activities, one might conjecture that the simplistic, first speculation contained a grain of truth. Possibly there was in fact an absent lover, but he had left the milkmaid pregnant before he continued his travels. She then found herself in the precarious position of having to confess, begging to keep her job. And to spin the narrative further, into the maid’s workplace, maybe this shameful revelation secretly suited her employer, as his wife was unable to nurse – to her great distress, as at the time, middle-to upper-class women were expected to nurse their children, “rather than rely on a wet nurse.”[7]

In early modern Dutch society children were especially beloved[8] and they were often depicted in paintings of domestic interiors. Children would have been running around, but Vermeer, who had an unusually high number of children – eleven – barely ever painted any.[9] Unlike in de Hooch’s painting, in the Milkmaid, the mistress of the house as well as any children are absent. In the photoshopped version (Fig. 2), I have included them, borrowing them from The Van Moerkerken Family, ca. 1653–54, by Gerard ter Borch the Younger. The child in this rendering has most likely just about outgrown nursing, but may – like the toddler Catharina Hooft in Frans Hals’ portrait from ca. 1620 (Fig. 4) – feel quite attached to his wet nurse. In this speculative scenario, the child would have been pulled away from the wet nurse / milkmaid by an irritated mother (her nursing shortcomings amplified by her son’s affections for the maid), and Vermeer would have been left to wonder about the maid as he continued to paint her, without a map, without a basket, but with the milk jug and a foot warmer. Possibly he glimpsed her wet nursing her master’s child before she laced up and rushed in for her sitting. Or maybe she was called away from Vermeer by the cries of a child, which was not hers, nor her duty to feed. The cloth on the wall of my visual alteration might then have been a nursing cloth rather than a dishcloth.

Fig. 3: Frans Hals, Catharina Hooft and Her Nurse, ca. 1620

And this is where the true privacy of such a painting might rest, in the clues the objects give us. Some of them are loaded with iconographic meaning beside their actual meaning. The gazes and facial expressions also give us hints, as does the vantage point of the onlooker. Had Vermeer bent down to greet the little boy when he noticed the optimal (unusually low) angle for his painting? True privacy remains in the speculative realm. Can this speculation exercise teach us about privacy and its construction in the early modern period, beyond the conjuring of a family’s dirty laundry or my possibly overly empathetic projection? Privacy – like the milkmaid’s dress and the painting’s coats of paint – is best described in terms of layers. The layers of privacy are always laced with speculation. They are shifting and difficult to uncover. We might see through them with the help of x-rays and other means, but through the reading between the lines, the guessing at what has not been written down, and the imagining of whispers, we, as historians, can turn restrained speculation into a probing tool.


[1] It fetched the second highest price at an auction of 22 of Vermeer’s 35 paintings in 1696, off the estate of the original owner’s son in law, Jacob Dissius.

[2] Walter Liedtke, “Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) and The Milkmaid,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, August 2009,

[3] Liedtke.

[4] Liedtke.

[5] H. Rodney Nevitt, Jr., “Vermeer’s Milkmaid in the DIscourse of Love,” in Ut Pictura Amor: The Reflexive Imagery of Love in Artistic Theory and Practice, 1500-1700, vol. 48, Intersections (Brill, 2017).

[6] During Vermeer’s lifetime, painters such as Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer himself began to represent maids more neutrally than their predecessor who emphasized the easy sexuality associated with maids. See also “The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer,” accessed January 28, 2020,

[7]  See also Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (University of California Press, 1988), 540.

[8] Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches.

[9] Children are only pictured in The Little Street, c. 1657–1661 and in The View of Delft, c. 1660–1663.


Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search