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A deeper look into the war on privacy

Harvard historian dissects the religious roots of the war on privacy.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Harvard historian dissects the religious roots of the war on privacy.

A couple walk past a police observation pod in a neighborhood with heavy crime on June 4, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

America’s privacy issues run pretty deep. You can’t really understand the divisions over today’s privacy flashpoints–Edward Snowden and the NSA, Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook–without considering the previous waves of technological advance and political backlash in American history.

That’s the argument pressed by Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian, New Yorker writer and award-winning chronicler of political movements from the revolutionary era to today’s Tea Party activists.

On Sunday, Lepore delivered a lecture on the “hidden history of privacy” in Manhattan, part of a series of cultural and political talks sponsored by the New Yorker festival.

Today’s clashes and anxiety about privacy, Lepore argues, are descendant from a fissure that is far more intense than what Facebook or Wikileaks has wrought–from a revolution in our understanding of God and science itself.

In policy debates today, we typically approach privacy as a “trade-off”–can you trade some of it for security, for example, or spend some of it in exchange for attention online?’

Without dismissing that approach, Lepore suggests that we appreciate how privacy itself emerged in a much broader enlightenment process, where science turned the “mysterious”–known only to God–into “secrets” of the educated, and ultimately into private information. Or, as she puts it: “much that was once mysterious became secret and then became private.”

She looks at advances in human knowledge, such as how the “beginning of life” moved from a purely religious mystery to an area of scientific study, and then moved to, very recently, a matter of women’s privacy. Lepore draws a straight line from the seminal 1890 law review article proposing a right to privacy–novel, at the time–to a series of Supreme Court decisions based on that right, such as the use of contraceptives, in 1965, or abortion, in 1973, to anal sex, in 2003. (As a matter of privacy law, it’s difficult to decide which of those decisions was the most overdue at the time.)

Under this view, it’s way too narrow to approach debates over personal information about one’s sexual activities as a binary issue of “privacy versus exposure.”  That’s because the private information itself stems from the larger evolution from “mystery,” and theology, to advances in science and politics.

In fact, I think Lepore’s paradigm leads to a very relatable point today: While traditional “privacy” protects your right to keep your sexual orientation to yourself, only the (recent) evolution of political equality protects your right to express it without risk and retribution.  One can desire both options, as a matter of human dignity, without undermining either one.

For more on Lepore’s view of today’s surveillance debate, check out her recent article, Privacy in an Age of Publicity.