On the 4th, Let's Celebrate Privacy

It looks as though this country is in for a lengthy and unpleasant period of sorting out the balance between privacy and security. In the run up to the 4th of July it's worth remembering why privacy is every bit as American a value as our national security.

Privacy is a recent, hard-won and progressive value. It is not synonymous with individuality but, at least in the West, it is essential to the way post-Enlightenment men and women understand themselves as individuals with human dignity. Privacy is absent from Greek and Roman thought. As late as the 18th century architecture commonly ignored it, including for royal domiciles; only later are buildings designed with hallways that permit activities in rooms to be private.

A notion of privacy begins to surface with the common law doctrine that one's home is one's castle (home invasion was once common), and is represented in constitutional strictures against warrantless searches and seizures. As newspapers blossomed and the telegraph and telephone became commonplace, privacy came to establish its modern significance. Libelous gossip and gratuitous wiretapping were the sharp edges of mass communication that provoked a response based on a right to privacy. As totalitarian states rose, ordinary Americans in particular felt confident that once mailed no one but the recipient could read their sealed letters without judicial intervention.

Thus the same forces that spawned a right to privacy produced the first progressive era. To take another example, abusive and snooping bosses in massive assembly line factories were a spur to the labor movement. "Company doctors" came to be mistrusted as agents of the boss who would not maintain confidentiality. Privacy was a point of worker dignity. Toilets were among the public accommodations at issue in the civil rights movement, vividly associating privacy with dignity.

"I live a boring life so I have nothing to hide." This lazy rationalization to which nearly all of us have succumbed, this writer included, isn't good enough. Privacy is not an abstraction. The generations of survivors of tyrannical states came to America reveled in the confidence that a letter posted in the U.S. mail wouldn't be read by the secret police. Are we ready to tell them otherwise? Google and Amazon collect and analyze on our data to sell us more stuff, it's true, but at least so far they lack the police power of the state.

Our current policy dilemma is rooted in the fact that privacy and security are incommensurable values. We demand privacy to deprive others of knowledge about us; we demand security for the health and welfare of our families, friends and nation. The two cannot be assessed according to the same metric. Yet based on its history there is every reason to believe that as communications technologies link us ever close together privacy will be a critical value. The mixed response to the NSA breaches shows that in the public mind privacy does not simply trump national security but that is no reason to abandon it.

Without privacy there is no freedom. Let's celebrate it on the 4th.