20 years after 9/11. From privacy to monitoring and surveillance

Way back in May of 2000, in a world without smartphones or social media, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) called on Congress to pass a law protecting the elementary privacy rights of all Americans.[1] It would be the opening at the time of many such recommendations made by the commission, and it reverberated similar, even more enthusiastic, pleas for action for privacy. The internet was starting to globalize and become an instrument in everyday life for everyone. The World Wide Web was an information space where documents and other web resources identified by URLs, interlinked by hypertext links, could be accessed via the Internet using a web browser and (more recently) web-based applications. As of the 2010s, the World Wide Web is the primary tool billions use to interact on the Internet, and it has changed people’s lives immeasurably. It has become known just as “the Web”.

Way back in February of 2004, Facebook was created. Three years later, the first smartphones were released.[2] Nevertheless, FTC surveys had already exposed that, regardless of gathering vast quantities of personal information from consumers, very few corporations shown anything about how this data was collected and used, and even fewer assured to provide even the most elementary protections for it. Therefore, the need to legislate was clear, even before we had smartphones, mobile devices, social networks, apps, and detailed tracking of our daily movements, locations and ultimately personal lives. So the new law was supposed to force the United States administration and the United States corporations to inform people about the kind of data collected in their searches, communications and data collection.[3] However, this never happened.

On September 11, 2001, at 8h45 a.m. on a clear Tuesday morning – exactly 20 years ago from today – the Pentagon and the Twin Towers suffered a terrorist attack by al-Qaeda, an Islamist extremist group. This tragic event grounded the idea that zeal for the right to privacy and freedom of movement had helped terrorists attack United States soil. With the terrorist attack, all momentum around a privacy law stopped. The focus shifted from privacy to mass monitoring and surveillance. Accordingly, the national privacy law did not happen. In many ways, 9/11 obstructed the progress of privacy laws in the United States and gave the administration and corporations more room to collect data, as Peter Swire points out.[4]

In the first few weeks after 9/11[5], George W. Bush, then President of the United States, sanctioned the National Security Agency (NSA)[6] to conduct surveillance actions inside the nation which had been barred for decades by law and agency policies. When the NSA’s spying program was first exposed by the New York Times in 2005[7], Bush admitted responsibility only concerning the “Terrorist Surveillance Program”. This NSA program monitored the communications inside the United States of hundreds of people with alleged connections to al-Qaeda without any kind of citizen’s approval or the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying.[8] At the time, administration officials were confident that the existing safeguards were adequate to protect the privacy and civil liberties of American citizens.

Forty-five days after 9/11 (October 26, 2001), Bush decided on behalf of national security and trying to prevent another terrorist attack, to create and implement the USA PATRIOT Act, a law that increased the power of surveillance to be carried out by the United States administration.[9] The terrorist attacks intensified debate over the issue of monitoring and surveillance by the government and law enforcement officials, with some advocating increased tools to help track down terrorists, and others cautioning that fundamental tenets of democracy, such as privacy, not be endangered in that quest. For example, the administration convinced the major telecommunications corporations in the United States to hand over the “call-detail records” of their customers. According to USA Today, this included “customers’ names, street addresses, and other personal information.” [10] The agency’s goal was to create a database of every call ever made within the nation’s borders. All of this was done without a judicial oversight. This meant that the normalization of mass surveillance in day to day life became the rule.[11]

With 9/11, the United States administration, and consequently in a knock-on effect the other governments around the world, were authorized to access tis citizens communications in the name of security, as Cindy Cohn stated,[12] chair of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).[13] Before, the idea was that democratic governments couldn’t directly access people’s communications unless there was any doubt or suspicion. With 9/11, the NSA’s strategy became collect first and analyze later.

The Muslim diasporic community in the United States was one of the most affected by these events and by the resulting changes, with some of the data justifying the inclusion of Americans on lists of suspected terrorists and often without any valid explanation. One of the most well-known and notorious examples is that of “Baby Doe 1”, a baby, who, in 2012, was barred at an airport and targeted for “chemical testing” because his boarding pass (a set of letters SSSS) identified him as a “suspected terrorist or terrorist”. Those who get on the list can be required to provide access to smartphones, mobile devices and social media to compare with data from Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE).[14] Therefore, the USA PATRIOT Act became the instrument for the widespread privacy-violating infrastructure of the post 9/11 era.

The United States administration, with assistance from the major telecommunications corporations, engaged in massive, illegal tracking operations of surveillance of domestic communications records of millions of Americans since at least 2001. Despite several leaks, for years the NSA argued that it did not collect bulk data of Americans’ communications in the United States. However, the revelations made by Edward Snowden[15] forced the agency to amend the narrative. In 2013, Snowden working for United States intelligence, revealed documents showing that United States telecoms were collecting information on the communications of people and handing it over to the intelligence services.

In 2015, the USA PATRIOT Act was replaced by the USA Freedom Act[16] which limited the administration’s power. With the USA Freedom Act, the NSA left the collection large-scale collection of communications metadata (e.g. phone numbers, location, email addresses and call duration) constantly and without legal justification. Except that this data, which is now kept by telecom operators or corporations like Facebook and Google, is made available to the NSA upon a warrant from a secret court.

The massification of internet-connected smartphones, social networks and geolocation apps do not make it easy to stand for privacy. Everyone is carrying high-end cameras and tracking devices. The ability to collect and process data has been increasing exponentially every year. The technical capability for mass surveillance is very new. And this fact, is because the technology has changed, not because 9/11 happened.

However, in recent years there have been developments in the defense of privacy. On the one hand, because of Edward Snowden’s revelations, on the other hand, because of the encryption of electronic communications. In the months after Snowden’s revelations about massive spying by the authorities, email providers like Google started offering encrypted messages and more online sites started using the HTTPS protocol (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure). By 2021, it is the norm on most of the email and messaging services, as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram.

The United States administration has been trying to defend the successes of the surveillance police. In October 2013, the president of the NSA admitted that there was only evidence of the programme having barred 13 threats. One example is that of Najibullah Zazi, an al-Qaeda member allegedly planning bomb attacks on the New York underground.  However, a BuzzFeed investigation showed that the arrest would have been possible without the 9/11 surveillance rules.

Two decades after 9/11, one of its legacies is that many programs that were created to give people more security, have not worked. We have given up privacy for very little. Postponing reflection, puts democracy at risk. The lack of privacy in general, is creating a whole generation of people who are afraid to share their opinions. And last but not least, another Pandora box (that will not be addressed here) concerning privacy was opened in the last year and a half with the current pandemic …


[1] See https://www.ftc.gov/public-statements/2000/02/privacy-internet-evolving-legal-landscape (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[2] The iPhone was released in the United States on June 29, 2007.

[3] See https://www.commerce.senate.gov/2020/9/revisiting-the-need-for-federal-data-privacy-legislation (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[4] Leading privacy and cyber law scholar, former Chief Counselor for Privacy, in the United States Office of Management and Budget, and the first person to have had United States government-wide responsibility for privacy policies.

[5] “9/11” is shorthand for the terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda, to the Pentagon and the Twin Towers which occurred on the morning of September 11, 2001. If the term identified literally a date, it also became an acronym for the events of September 11, 2001. Two of the hijacked planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third plane hit the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., and the fourth plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Almost 3000 people were killed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which triggered United States initiatives to combat terrorism and defined the presidency of George W. Bush. See https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/9-11 (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[6] The largest and most secretive intelligence agency of the United States, so intent on remaining out of public view that it has long been nicknamed “No Such Agency.” It breaks codes and maintains listening posts around the world to eavesdrop on foreign governments, diplomats, terrorists, drug lords, etc.. However, it ordinarily operates under tight restrictions on any spying or disseminating information on Americans.

[7] The White House asked The New York Times not to publish the article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny.

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/16/politics/bush-lets-us-spy-on-callers-without-courts.html and https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/18/opinion/mass-surveillance-isnt-the-answer-to-fighting-terrorism.html (acessed 08 Sep 2021).

[9] https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/RL31408.html#TOC3_1 (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[10] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-05-10-nsa_x.htm (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[11] With a strong evidence with the current pandemic that will not be addressed here.

[12] Cohn has been named to TheNonProfitTimes 2020 Power & Influence TOP 50 list, honoring 2020’s movers and shakers. In 2018, Forbes included Cohn as one of America’s Top 50 Women in Tech. The National Law Journal named Cohn one of 100 most influential lawyers in America in 2013, noting: “[I]f Big Brother is watching, he better look out for Cindy Cohn.” See https://www.eff.org/about/staff/cindy-cohn (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[13] A non-profit organization dedicated to protecting privacy in the digital environment. Cohn first became involved with EFF in 1993, when EFF asked her to serve as attorney in the First Amendment challenge to the United States export restrictions on cryptography. See https://www.eff.org/about (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[14] United States administration central database on terrorism from military and intelligence sources around the world. Includes contains highly classified information provided by members of the Intelligence Community such as CIA, DIA, FBI, NSA, and many others.

[15] Computer analyst whistleblower who provided the Guardian with top-secret NSA documents leading to revelations about US surveillance on phone and internet communications. See https://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2013/nov/01/snowden-nsa-files-surveillance-revelations-decoded#section/1 (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[16] A long acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Enforcing Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline over Monitoring.

Introducing Privacy Black and White: a collaboration between PRIVACY, In the Same Sea, and CopeNLU

Yesterday, I had the pleasure to attend the kick-off of PRIVACY BLACK and WHITE, a new research collaboration between In the Same Sea, CopeNLU, and the Centre for Privacy Studies.  Our project will tackle the role of privacy practices in the development of slavery and racism in the Caribbean-European colonial nexus (c. 1600-1850).

Under the joint leadership of Gunvor Simonsen, Isabelle Augenstein, and Mette Birkedal Bruun, our team will count with one postdoc from the Saxo Institute representing In the Same Sea, one PhD candidate from the Department of Computer Science, as well as Natacha Klein Käfer and myself, from the Centre for Privacy Studies. In addition to doing research, I will also act as the project’s coordinator.

From left to right: Isabelle Augenstein, Natália da Silva Perez, Gunvor Simonsen, Natacha Klein Käfer, and Mette Birkedal Bruun
From left to right: Isabelle Augenstein, Natália da Silva Perez, Gunvor Simonsen, Natacha Klein Käfer, and Mette Birkedal Bruun

From roughly the fifteenth through the nineteenth century, Europeans were responsible for the abduction and enslavement of c. 12,5 million Africans. In that context, property practices, religious beliefs, sexual mores, philosophical ideas of European origin, all helped to shape the racialization of manual labor, resulting in centuries of exploitation of Black people in Caribbean colonies as well as elsewhere in the American continent. Strategies for regulating access to bodies, goods, and ideas are at the core of the colonial exploitation, and these ideas are also crucial for our understanding of privacy. Africans and their descents also resisted appropriation of their bodies, notably through marronage, something that we can study as a strategy to obtain privacy. Can we find traces of these long term, trans-imperial developments in the historical texts we study? This is part of what our team will explore.

My own research within the project will focus on studying European discursive practices in print that undergirded justifications for the reproductive exploitation of African women. I am also interested in discursive representations, across different imperial borders, differentiating between European and African women. Women were crucial for the economic success of colonial enterprises and the enrichment of European imperial powers. I will draw from my experience on the history of women from different linguistic communities. Some of the questions I have been thinking about are: what did people of different religious or philosophical persuasions say about the enslavement of African women and of African children? What differences can I find between discourses present in early periodicals, for example, and religious literature, such as printed sermons and published devotional manuals? How about legal treatises and slave codes?

To tackle research questions stemming from a trans-imperial context, we need to examine a lot of historical documents. This is why we will use a collaborative intelligence approach that combines historical methods with purpose-built NLP tools capable of dealing with the complexity of our historical material. Building on the NLP paradigm of cross-lingual transfer learning, we will develop models that can handle temporal, geographical, and gender variations in cross-lingual contexts. Then we will train our classification models based on these representations.

Our project will run from 2021 to 2024.

Privacy, Secrecy, and Cryptography in the Early Modern Period

Cryptography has been a tool for secrecy for millennia. As a way of ensuring information confidentiality, cryptography served to maintain military, diplomatic, occult, and personal knowledge restricted to people with the decoding key – or those determined enough to crack the code.

Giambattista della Porta‘s De furtivis literarum notis (1563)

In the past (as today), cryptography was tied to different material components. From Egyptian carvings, Ancient Greek Scytales, and even alleged hidden tattoos, attempts to pass on information in a concealed way continuously depended on clever use of substances, mediums, and devices. One of the game-changing tools of early modern cryptography was the cipher disk.

The first appearance of the cipher disk in a descriptive text was in the work of the humanist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). In his treatise De Cifris (1467), he described two concentric disks, divided into cells containing letters and numbers. The larger disk was used for the plaintext, while the inner ring was for the ciphertext. The use of the disk allowed a much more accessible polyalphabetic cipher, which became one of the most robust forms of encryption for centuries to come.

Opuscoli morali di Leon Batista Alberti gentil’huomo firentino

The use of encoding and decoding devices also implied that access to them needed to be restricted. This added layer of secrecy resulted in very interesting strategies of concealment. A great example is a ciphering machine used in the court of Henry II of France, which was disguised as a book.

Musée d’Écouen

These layers helped to ensure secrecy, which was fundamental for early modern strategic communication. However, do these efforts of secrecy correlate with a concern over privacy? After all, most of the subjects deemed worthy of such level of concealment dealt with very public matters, such as political arrangements and war efforts.

The philosopher Sissela Bok provides a useful distinction between secrecy and privacy. In her work Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation, Bok describes how secrecy and privacy are entangled, but not equivalent.

“Having defined secrecy as intentional concealment, I obviously cannot take it as identical with privacy. I shall define privacy as the condition of being protected from unwanted access by others—either physical access, personal information, or attention. Claims to privacy are claims to control access to what one takes—however grandiosely—to be one’s personal domain. Through such claims, and the counterclaims they often generate, people try to reinforce or expand this control.

Privacy and secrecy overlap whenever the efforts at such control rely on hiding. But privacy need not hide; and secrecy hides far more than what is private. A private garden need not be a secret garden; a private life is rarely a secret life. Conversely, secret diplomacy rarely concerns what is private, any more than do arrangements for a surprise party or for choosing prize winners.

Why then are privacy and secrecy so often equated? In part, this is so because privacy is such a central part of what secrecy protects that it can easily be seen as the whole. People claim privacy for differing amounts of what they are and do and own; if need be, they seek the added protection of secrecy. In each case, their purpose is to become less vulnerable, more in control.” Bok, Secrets (1989), p. 11.

The relationship between secrecy and privacy is crucial for our work at the Centre for Privacy Studies, as it is present in so many early modern sources. During the symposium Practices of Privacy: Knowledge in the Making, we explored how secrecy was a tool for privacy, but also discussed that the existence of secrets depended on a significant level of privacy to be secured. In early modern Europe, cryptography and secrecy also become entangled with contemporaneous philosophical and theological debates, so issues of religious confession and approaches to the natural world had a significant impact on how strategies and techniques of concealment developed. As such, the interplay between privacy, secrecy, and cryptography is crucial for understanding how privacy was created in particular environments.

On January 28, the seminar Historical Notions of Privacy in Latin America will address one of the main figures in the history of early modern cryptography: Johannes Trithemius. Professor Francisco de Paula de Souza Mendonça Júnior will present his work-in-progress on Trithemius’ Polygraphia. More information can be found on PRIVACY’s website: https://teol.ku.dk/privacy/events/events-2020/online-privacy-seminar-historical-notions-of-privacy-in-latin-america/

Privacy and Moral Philosophy

What does privacy have to do with moral philosophy? A lot, depending on how we conceptualize privacy. Privacy was a word people used in the eighteenth century, albeit not in the exact same way as we do today. The notion of a ‘right to privacy’ did not exist, neither legally nor in the minds.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, privacy is defined as ‘1. the state or condition of not being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right; seclusion; freedom from interference or intrusion’. One may note a particular legal and political undertone is this definition with the word right and choice, the words freedom and the liberal definition of liberty as freedom from interference or intrusion. Privacy is also the avoidance of publicity, protection from public knowledge. Again a legal and political understanding.

If we look at Nathan Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum, ‘privacy’ is identified as stemming from the French privauté, meaning ‘familiarity’, but also retirement or secrecy. French dictionaries at the time also defined ‘privauté’ as ‘familiarité’. Privacy as privauté is not of our concern here.

A Dictionary of the English Language 1755 If we look at the 1768 edition of Samuel Johnson’s A dictionary of the English language, privacy is defined as stemming from ‘private’ and designating 1) the state of being secret, secrecy, or 2) retirement, retreat, or 3) privity, grand familiarity, joint knowledge, or 4) taciturnity. ‘Private’ stems from the Latin privatus, meaning 1) not open, secret, 2) alone, not accompanied, 3) being upon the same terms upon the community, particular, opposed to public, 4) particular, not relating to public, 5) in private, secretly, not in public.

One may notice the absence of any legal or political connotation, except perhaps that it denotes something ‘secret’ and ‘retired’ from others. It is first in Brandeis and Warren’s 1890 article on ‘the right to privacy’ that we have a clear legal notion of a ‘right to be left alone’. This right to privacy, also adds to other rights defined in the American and French declarations in the late eighteenth century.

Now, there is clearly a cultural, philosophical, and political change in minds that explains the notion of rights. But, what about the notion of privacy? And why study the history of moral philosophy in particular for an intellectual history of this notion of privacy?

Rubens, Adam and Eve, 1628-29

In the Book of Genesis, the reader learns that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings. They were free to do what they wanted and prosper in the Garden of Eden to create humankind. God made them in his image. However, God forbid Adam and Eve to eat fruits from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as well as the tree of life. Tricked by a snake, Eve ate a fruit from the tree of knowledge and offered it to Adam. As a result, they gained knowledge of good and evil. With this knowledge came shame, the shame to discover they were naked. They hid their genitals from each other. They equally tried to hide from God as they knew they did something wrong and disobey his command. God found out, and, fearing they could also eat from the tree of life and become immortal like Him, He banned them from Eden to suffer on earth.

If we think about privacy in this well-known story, we can see that knowledge of good and evil is tightly related to secrecy and publicity. The reason for retiring and concealing something shameful is the fear of judgement and knowledge by others. It is a moral judgement we are here interested in, not legal judgement. One would also hide and conceal something illegal in the fear of being sentenced as a result, but that is not of our concern here.

My hypothesis, then, is that looking at how people conceived morality determined how people acted in public and in private. I am here conceptualizing privacy with a restriction to being a state of privation from others, a retreat from others, therefore a voluntary act. It is others’ knowledge of one’s actions. We acquire knowledge through our senses: sight, hearing, smell, and to a certain extent touch and taste.

If someone choses to retreat from other people’s senses, the retreat is voluntary. If the retreat is voluntary then there is a reason for it: a will to keep something away from others. This will is thus influenced by something, which may be a certain public image as opposed to a private one. It may also be that there is a will to keep something away from others. Society may frown upon the condition of solitude because it is suspect: someone may be hiding something contrary to moral standards.

Moreover, if there is a will, it also supposes that the person is alive, but what about after death and the will of the person? This touches upon questions as wide ranging as opening a private diary, and opening a cadaver to gain knowledge of the soul or the body. This will to retreat also imply that we study how the person in question understands this retreat and privacy. Closing one’s eyes and joining hands in prayer in the middle of a crowded room may not seem like privacy to us, but might be for the person. By the same token, this person may believe to be alone and thus away from the knowledge of others, but not of God. A private conduct may also be influenced and not considered as privacy by this person.

The teaching of moral philosophy at the university in the early modern period may seem remote from social realities. It is difficult to assess the real impact and it is certainly limited to a society’s elite. However, since society was hierarchically organized, it is relevant to study the elite’s mind-set in order to understand the rules according to which it ruled lesser ‘classes’ or estates. Studying at the university was reserved to a certain elite in the eighteenth century, and this was also true of Glasgow.

The professorial chair was subject to political scrutiny, even if to a lesser

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746)

extent at Glasgow compared to Edinburgh and other Scottish universities. The eighteenth century saw an increasing patronage by the crown and politicians over the church and universities.[1] The politics of the church and the university is important because it shaped the ideas and values of the Scots. The most influential persons who managed to monopolise patronage were Archibald Campbell, first earl of Ilay, and, after 1743, third duke of Argyll (1682-1761), and afterwards Henry Dundas, first Viscount of Melville (1742-1811).[2] Francis Hutcheson’s appointment at the Chair of Moral Philosophy in 1729 was the result of Ilay’s decisive influence over factional disputes.[3]

This is the first step for building my research programme on privacy as it relates to moral philosophy. I start from the hypothesis that moral philosophy is significant for understanding privacy because it defines the standards by which people judged one another. It formed their ‘moral sense’ in a way. The next step is to look at the actual teaching of moral philosophy. I work on the Glasgow case together with my colleagues at the Centre for Privacy Studies, and I focus on Francis Hutcheson’s teaching of moral philosophy. A third step would be to collect sources and information about how his teaching spread through society by looking at his students and if and how his ideas were discussed in society.

[1] Roger L. Emerson, ‘Politics and the Glasgow Professors, 1690-1800’, in The Glasgow Enlightenment, ed. Andrew Hook and Richard B. Sher (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1995).

[2] Emerson, 22.

[3] Roger L. Emerson, Academic Patronage in the Scottish Enlightenment: Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 96–97.

This post is based on the paper I presented at the 49th Annual Conference of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 8-10 January 2020 at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, United Kingdom : “Natural, Unnatural and Supernatural”.

Towards a history of privacy: conceptual and methodological considerations

If privacy is a highly debated topic today, particularly in the USA, it is mainly because of increasing concerns in the last two decades regarding the rise of digitalization, on the one hand, and surveillance promising security against “terrorism,” on the other. As a look at the surge of the term “privacy” in an n-gram Google books search shows, this had been a rising concern since the 1960s.

Alan F. Westin published the first seminal book on privacy in 1967, Privacy and Freedom, which influenced several legal reforms in the 1970s and 1980s in the USA. He devised a taxonomy with four different states of privacy: solitude, intimacy, reserve, and anonymity. The central issue was already the interception of communications, physical and increasingly electronic. In a similar vein, the growing use of the internet triggered concerns regarding a seemingly limitless invasion of privacy. Jeffrey Rosen published The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America in 2000, and The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age in 2004, with an emphasis on privacy in a digital world. James B. Rule in 2007 Privacy in Peril, offered an account of the tradeoff involved between privacy and security or other conveniences by individuals willingly giving electronic information to government and corporations.

In his 2008 book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain showed how the transition to a web 2.0 also involved a transition from a “Privacy 1.0” (data gathered by and stored in government and corporate databases) to a “Privacy 2.0” (data created and freely shared by individuals). In that spirit, in Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change, edited by Jeffrey Rosen and Benjamin Wittes in 2011, leading US scholars imagine the state of things to come and suggest policies and legal solutions to issues related not only to technological advances in surveillance but also neuroscience and genetics.

In conceptualizing privacy, these works have in common that they consider privacy as a valuable good from an individual point of view, an individual right that needs protection. Of course, I do not contend that we should not see privacy as a right that needs protection, but as a historian, and particularly an intellectual historian, this present conceptualization is problematic and is the starting point of a Foucauldian interrogation on a “history of the present.” How did we come to consider privacy as a human right? It was not present in the 1789 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, but is in article 12 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Privacy is however difficult to conceptualize and attempts to do so may lead to everything and nothing. Daniel J. Solove, in his 2008 Understanding Privacy, noted this difficulty and suggested a new taxonomy different from Westin’s (information collection, processing, dissemination, and invasion of privacy). Solove suggests avoiding an essentialist conception of privacy with a defined “core.” Instead, one should consider Wittgenstein’s theory of language and “family resemblances” when studying privacy. Rather than looking at one issue, Solove suggests a bottom-up approach by understanding “privacy as a set of protections against a plurality of distinct but related problems” (p. 171). This set of related problems forms a cluster of disparate notions that we solely for practical purposes unite under the common denomination “privacy.”

As a parenthesis on Wittgenstein, one may note that he exiled himself in Skjolden, Norway, in a secluded and isolated hut, which was visible to all in the village downhill. A sort of “conspicuous privacy.” This points the finger on one issue, which is also identified by many book covers and also the logo chosen for the Centre for Privacy Studies: an external eye witnessing the “private.”Eye dilate

Now, a key issue in intellectual history concerns the methodological and conceptual characterization of the object of study, typically a concept, idea, any intellectual production. Consider liberty. One could chose to define liberty first, and then look to the past to identify how the defined liberty was used and thought of, and how the concept was formed. This way of writing history, however, runs the risk of anachronism. As Quentin Skinner showed in Liberty Before Liberalism, one may overlook other conceptions of liberty, a neo-Roman or neo-Republican conception, than the one determined by the dominant paradigm of liberalism. The issue is this: writing the history of an intellectual object has two occupations. First, writing the history of the object in the past. Second, writing the history of the formation of the object in the past–how we got this object today.

Privacy is no different and is a typical case of an object of study, for which the word did not necessarily exist in the past or rarely occured. As Ferdinand de Saussure put it, an object has two components: a signifié (signified), or the concept that a word is designating, and a signifiant (signifier) or the word that designates the concept. Now a historian looks at sources, documents, that prove the existence of an object in the past. However, looking at the word is only looking at one side of the object when it is an intellectual one. A concept may exist before a word appears to define it. Also, the same word may designate a different concept than the one we have today. One could see this as making the object of study two dimensional rather than one-dimensional.

Of course, the concept of privacy obeys the same methodological considerations for the historian. From an intellectual historian’s point of view, it is, therefore, a double endeavor: investigating how past human beings thought of privacy, and investigating how the notion itself developed and became a word. For the first endeavor, we often lack a word, so there is a need to consider alternative methods. For the second, we lack a clear conceptualization of what notions to look for that will create the word. A quick look again at Google books shows the beginnings of the use of the word “privacy” and a peak in the mid-17th century after the end of the English civil war.

Moreover, privacy is more than just a concept. It is also a feeling and a condition.  Beate Rossler has theorized three dimensions of privacy: decisional privacy (the privacy of actions), informational privacy (the proper “right to privacy” or “right to be left alone” from Warren and Brandeis), and local privacy (the traditional private home separate from the public). That may be a third dimension to understanding privacy as an object of study. Privacy is, therefore, a great case for a truly interdisciplinary study program and deserves to be expanded into a whole field of study: privacy studies.

The Centre for Privacy Studies opted for an ambitious methodological and theoretical approach while maintaining a firm and clearly delineated bottom-up case-based study. Centre director Mette Birkedal Bruun published two papers on the centre’s working method. One is “Privacy in Early Modern Christianity and Beyond: Traces and Approaches” Annali Istituto storico italo-germanico/Jahrbuch des italienisch-deutschen historischen Instituts in Trient 44 (2018/2), 33-54. Another one is available on the Centre’s homepage. We understand privacy both as a quality and a threat from the perspective of all parts involved. In order to examine family resemblances, we not only analyze the stem “priv” in a corpus of texts–“priv- words”, i.e. words like “ “private,” “privacy,” “privy,” in various languages–but we also use a semantic mapping of words related and/or opposed to “private”–such as “common,” “professional,” “public,” etc. We also use heuristic zones to delineate the intersection, exclusion, and overlap of various spheres of privacy:

By examining how some problems related to privacy occurred at different places and times, we want to present a micro-historical observation of the human condition. All these cases could then serve for the basis of a bigger macro-analysis of the variations in thinking of and living with privacy.

This is what a scientific research program in the humanities aims to achieve: to provide society the tools to understand itself and the human condition in order to make better-informed decisions for the future. However, humankind does not understand universally the concept of “privacy” in the same way. Barrington Moore wrote a seminal anthropological and historical study comparing an Eskimo community, classical Athens, the Old Testament, and Ancient China. The first issue lies in the translation of this cluster we call “privacy” in other languages and in wondering with Moore whether it is universal at all. In my next post, I shall consider “privacy” in the French language as an example.

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