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Privacy Past And Present: A Saga Of American Ambivalence

Protesters gather outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday to rally against the National Security Agency's recently detailed surveillance programs.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Protesters gather outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday to rally against the National Security Agency's recently detailed surveillance programs.

America's privacy concerns go back to the origins of the country itself. And in the wake of revelations about the National Security Agency's surveillance activities, polls show the country has mixed feelings; Fox News, CBS News and Gallup all find that more than half of all Americans don't approve of the NSA collecting phone and Internet records. Young Americans feel just as ambivalent as older generations when asked about the surveillance activity.

Michael Lisman, who was enjoying a lunch break in Franklin Square near the White House on Friday, says that in this era of Internet sharing, he just assumes people are watching and collecting his information.

"There's certainly things I don't necessarily want the NSA to find out about me," he says. "But I don't know how to stop them so I just try not to do those things."

But not everyone opposes the NSA's surveillance. According to those same three polls, about 40 percent of Americans are comfortable with the agency's tactics. That includes Dakota Beach, who was also in Franklin Square.

"I think that you have an obligation ... as a citizen of America, to share any information that's going to help the government keep our country safe," she says.

An Orwellian Prediction In Real-Life 1984

Larry Hunter, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, is more skeptical of the government's tactics.

"I'm not sure that much of my information is needed for security," he tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "And if there is a need for mine, I'd like to know why."

Hunter has been concerned about this sort of surveillance for nearly two decades. Back in 1984, Hunter, then a computer science graduate student, e-mailed daily with a few of his friends. And as child of the Nixonian '70s, he thought about this online future and had a realization: It wasn't the Orwellian camera-in-the-bedroom that Americans needed to worry about. The larger concern was how much could be revealed by what is done in public.

"When I go out and buy something at the store, or I make a phone call — all that stuff can be analyzed in such a way that it really tells a lot about who I am and what I think," Hunter says.

So Hunter wrote an essay outlining the possibilities of data collection in a paperless society.

"The ubiquity and power of the computer blur the distinction between public and private information," Hunter wrote. He was, in 1984, talking about what we now call social media — information we willingly share. The next year, his essay was published in The Whole Earth Review, and looking back now, it's an impressively prescient document.

"I got some of the names of things wrong," he says. "But I was pretty close."

But Hunter wasn't entirely on the mark. When it came to efforts to stop the privacy invasions, he acknowledges his predictions really didn't play out.

"We thought that people ought to inherently own the information about them, and have some property interest it in it, so they could control what's done with it," he says. "And I think it's too late for that. The Googles and the Microsofts of the world would lobby against that so fiercely that it really has no chance."

These days, Hunter and his friends are cautious with their personal exchanges online.

"Some of us like to use encryption to talk to each other so that it's a little harder to listen in on us," he says. "I still believe almost everything that was in that original 1984 piece."

Privacy, Past And Present

Hunter may have been one of the first Americans worried about online privacy, but the nation's concerns about government intrusion are older than the country itself, says Neil Richards, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

"If you want to talk about privacy, what would be less private than having a platoon of Redcoats living in your house, eating your food, listening to your conversations?" Richards asks. "... In the Constitution itself — the quartering of soldiers, the execution of general warrants — all have to do with the privacy of the home, the privacy of papers.

"And though the Constitution doesn't use the word 'privacy,' the separation of individuals and their information and their homes and their persons from the state is a theme that runs throughout the Bill of Rights."

Concerns about privacy ballooned again in the camera age.

"Privacy as a theme in American law, and really in American public discussion, arose in 1890," Richards says. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis — just a young lawyer at the time — wrote an article for The Harvard Law Review about the personal intrusions of the new "snap cameras."

The history of privacy in the U.S. is closely tied with the history of the press, and by the 1960s, that had become an embattled relationship. The '60s, Richards says, were a major moment for American privacy, in part because of the growth of "pre-modern computers." Back then, databases were called "data banks," and they made people nervous.

"At same time, you have the Supreme Court handing down cases on obscenity possession and also on wiretapping — protecting privacy to read, and privacy to talk with one's confidants over the phone," he says.

Then, in the 1970s, came President Nixon, who Richards calls "the great villain in the story of American privacy." The Watergate scandal prompted a push for privacy protection and after Nixon's resignation, Congress passed the Privacy Act of 1974. The act "regulates data held by the government," Richards explains. "They were going to extend it to private sector data but never quite got around to it."

Another turning point for privacy in America was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"I can remember living in Washington at the time," Richards recalls. "And even committed civil libertarians were saying, 'Just give the government what [they] want. We're terrified. People are dying.'"

Today, Richards says he believes that the American relationship to privacy is one of ambivalence: "On one hand, we want to be safe from crime and from terrorism," he says. "On the other, we want to be able to share information on Facebook, we want to be able to talk on the phone, we use cloud services."

And yet, when Americans find out — as they did on June 6 — that the government is collecting information about their communications, many people feel violated.

"The challenge that we're facing is how to strike the right balance," Richards says. "Realizing that information is never or rarely purely private — but at the same time, perfect security is also equally impossible."

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