Findings - Summer 2007

Findings: Privacy Revealed

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By Richard E. Nicholls

March 1, 2007


 

Who are privacy’s true enemies? For many Americans today, government stands at the top of the list. Almost 50 years ago, the journalist and political commentator Richard H. Rovere voiced the same concerns in his essay “Technology and the Claims of Community,” which appeared in these pages: “Each day, more and more of us are required to tell agencies of government more and more about ourselves; and each melancholy day, government agencies are telling more and more about us.” If such trends alarmed Rovere in the 1950s, imagine his reaction to what has emerged in the wake of the 9/11 attacks—the omnipresent contemporary security apparatus and the astonishing technological spying capabilities at its command.

Privacy was succinctly defined by Justice Brandeis as “the right to be let alone … the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized man.” Many who lament its erosion “talk as if they believe that the causes are essentially political,” Rovere writes, a position that would seem to echo the Fourth Amendment.

For much of the nation’s span, the right to privacy was secure and unchallenged. And while it might seem that the right dwindled as government grew, Rovere argues that privacy’s decline is more complex, having its origins in “our advancing technology and in the growing size and complexity of our society.” Among the culprits are “the camera, the telephone, the graduated income tax …. the tape recorder, the behavioral scientist, television … the professional social worker, ‘togetherness’ and a host of other developments.” Technology has also had the unintended effect of making us “all a great deal more dependent upon one another than we ever were in the past and necessarily, therefore, less able to protect our own privacy.” The timeliness of Rovere’s half-century-old argument seems all the more startling given that he wrote it before computers had so profoundly impacted American life.

In his conclusion, Rovere suggests that privacy is now too fluid to be an absolute and that all of us need to join in defining it and setting boundaries. You can begin to do just that by reading “Technology and the Claims of Community” from our Autumn 1958 issue.


Richard E. Nicholls is a contributing editor of The American Scholar.


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