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In 1973 the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 to overturn various State and Federal statutes that prohibited abortion. Whatever an individual’s view on abortion, the ruling itself relied on the absurd claim from Justice Blackmun (author of the majority opinion in this case) that the prohibition against abortion violated a woman’s right to privacy. Ignoring the fact that this is a patently dumb argument as it leaves room for any number of actions that could be cloaked under the guise of the right to privacy, the Court had to conduct an impressive display of mental gymnastics to find where in the U.S Constitution that it mentioned privacy as being a right. In short, it doesn’t. At least not specifically, but more and more today the question becomes whether it should.
The idea of privacy as being something to be valued is a relatively recent phenomenon. For most of history, privacy wasn’t a thing. Ever seen one of those curtains that surrounded beds? Those were for the king or noble to get busy with the Misses because the king/noble would usually have his retainers sleep in the same room as him. It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th that you start to see the gradual growth of privacy in the form of people having their own bedrooms. Historian Lynn Hunt links this to the growth of the individual and individual autonomy. The first solid glimpse we get of privacy being a right would be in Colonial America in 1776.
Herein, John Adams would decry the British for searching Colonial homes without warrant or a warrant (see what I did there). This was a play on the old English idea presented in the Magna Carta that a man ought to be left alone in his castle, which slowly evolved into every man’s home. This idea of privacy is interrelated to other views of the right to conscience, self-defense, etc… In short, the right to individual autonomy has been the driver of the rights movement in the United States and the West more broadly.
Beginning in the 20th century more and more science fiction began to be produced that detailed the rise of authoritarianism that corresponded with the advancement of technology. The rise of Big Brother. No longer was technology seen as the great liberator ala the car, the radio, or the washing machine. But now it has evolved into systems to move ever larger militaries, distribute propaganda, and destroy gender relations.
Growing up, I was always told to never reveal any personal information on the internet. That seemed to go by the wayside over the last decade. More and more people are perfectly willing to give out personal information. Whatever was easiest. However, whether it be the revelations from such characters as Edward Snowden that the government was spying on you or the recent revelation that the government had unmasked Tucker Carlson for doing the job of a journalist, society is growing ever more wary of the capabilities of the government to spy on you.
This is nothing compared to the capabilities of the tech companies that run so much of our lives. A recent Netflix movie, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, has the plot of all our technologies suddenly turning against us. While fictional, it is not dramatic in its scope of the power of the tech conglomerates. A power that corporatists such as Henry Ford would give his left arm to have. It’s not hard to imagine Google being able to influence entire elections not by propaganda (they certainly do that) but by controlling search results and outright blackmail candidates. Would you be willing to allow your search history out into the public?
I’ll be plain, I don’t know what to do about this. It would seem to me to be a catch-22 in the sense that if we allow the government to break up the tech companies or to determine what data said companies can gather that it would just give more power to a government that more people would not trust to take care of their houseplant, much less their information. On the other hand, the current situation seems untenable. Absolute power corrupts absolutely to be cliched.
There is European legislation with the idea of having the right to be forgotten. And as the joke from the beginning reveals, there is more and more demand for VPNs to hide your location and to circumvent region locks. But does that protect you? Even if you have a VPN, Google still has your search history, the data that they sell to interested parties. Their algorithms can already predict your sex, your politics, etc… How much of that do they use to control you? It has the effect of making you want to act as if you were on your best behavior online at all times. In the information age, privacy is a coveted luxury. Perhaps it should be a right.