• Privacy is Doomed. What’s new?

    In the west of Ireland, abandoned houses are not an uncommon sight. Many are a stark testimony to the generations of emigrants, who walked out the door never to return. More recently, they evoke the housing boom of the Celtic Tiger, Ireland’s economic revival, where builders raised estates faster than people could buy them.

    My mother’s farm, where she was born, boasts three houses; two are empty. My cousin has raised a commodious dwelling with 5 bedrooms and a large kitchen. He is always happy to greet us when we cross the bleak bog land to arrive at his front door. And he is always happy to give us a tour of the farm, and lead us past my grandmother’s small, once snug, house, which has stood locked the 30 years since she died.

    Just beyond that, fitted amongst the farm buildings, sits the home my mother grew up in. Barely 10 feet by 20, it hosted 3 rooms, my cousin reports — including the kitchen. This, for my grandparents, and eight children.

    It hardly looks like a house at all, to my untrained eye. Once it boasted a thatched roof; now corrugated steel. Its walls are thick, chalky, and plastered white — though you can still make out a faint stain where the kitchen fire roared. Surveying the compact space, I have a hard time imagining how it accommodated 10 people day in, day out. How did they not kill each other? How could they stand to look at one another, hear, smell, feel their presence all the time, without respite or distance?

    “Home is the school of intimacy, where we first learn to be human,” Shoshana Zuboff tells us. “Its shelter, stability, and security work to concentrate our unique inner sense of self… its hiding places — closets, chests, drawers, locks, and keys — satisfy our need for mystery and independence.”

    And I wonder: did my mother manage to find any hiding places in this humble abode? Did it satisfy her inherent “need for mystery and independence”? Or did she stride like Thoreau out into the fields, sauntering about, lamenting the stone fences that divvied up God’s green earth? Because that’s where you had to go, I imagine, if you wanted any privacy. But then you might be recruited for farm work if you ventured out. There was always something to do — there were plenty of mouths to feed. Unlike Thoreau, my mother had little time for sauntering. So little, in fact, that she emigrated abroad at the age of 16.


    Privacy is embattled today. It is deeply threatened by digital technology, which requests our data in exchange for manifold, wondrous conveniences. People are generally willing, if not eager, to pay up. The pandemic has deepened and accelerated our reliance on digital technology that makes our personal information vulnerable. The prognosis for privacy looks dim.

    Do we care? Better yet: does it matter?

    Scholars and civil libertarians ring the alarm, alerting us to all that we stand to lose when privacy is endangered or extinguished. It is a crucial value, they argue. Democracy and freedom are unthinkable without it.

    “Only when we believe that nobody is watching us do we feel free… to truly test boundaries, to explore new ways of thinking and being, to explore what it means to be ourselves,” Glenn Greenwald explains. “[It] is in the realm of privacy where creativity, dissent, and challenges to orthodoxy germinate.”

    French philosopher Michel Foucault offers perhaps the most ominous warning against lost privacy, when he chronicles the rise of panoptic architecture, stemming from an innovative 18th-century prison design. The social reformer Jeremy Bentham enthused that his “panopticon” would be a highly efficient form of control: prison cells were to be arranged in circular fashion around a central tower, whose occupant is obscured; the inmates would be visible to the tower’s occupant — whoever that might be — but not the reverse. Thus, the prisoners would effectively monitor themselves, and hold themselves in check — for whom, no one knows for sure; for what, that is a mystery too. Better to leave it up to their imaginations.

    Surveillance makes power anonymous, also automatic, Foucault explains. And thus, panoptic architecture spread far beyond prisons (where it hardly caught on) to inspire the construction of schools, barracks, hospitals, and factories. Space and light were key design features, exposing residents within. Visibility, Foucault writes, became “a trap,” which captures and stealthily controls people — who chasten themselves.

    Growing up in Ireland, my mother knew one of the foremost agents of surveillance in history: the Catholic Church. She readily tells of the “self-reporting” system she and her siblings endured every week — the sacrament of Confession. So intense was the monitoring and pressure, that people regularly went to Confession out of town if they had serious sins to get off their chest. And it was not enough to divulge your lies, your fights or insults, or various misdeeds; the priest had to hear your intentions and temptations, your deepest inner workings. Did you lust after anyone, he wanted to know — did you have “evil thoughts”? The reach of ecclesiastical power was vast, taking up residence within your very soul, causing you worry over errant ideas and wishes.

    Despite it all, my mother displays little trauma of her exposed, public — surveilled — childhood. She never had those intimate home spaces that are supposedly crucial to nourishing a tender ego, ushering it into adulthood. There was nothing particularly tender about her childhood at all. Though raised under the constant glare of church and family alike, no one would say she is shy, timid, or reflexively submissive. My mother is perfectly strong willed, self-possessed, and surprising to Greenwald perhaps, no stranger to dissent. Living in Richmond in the 1960s, she supported Martin Luther King and his marchers — a highly controversial (if dangerous) move. And though she remains a devoted Catholic, she spares no punches critiquing her church, advocating for married priests.

    Clearly, my mother enjoyed other resources which made her to be and become a confident individual — but privacy was not one of them.

    And come to think of it, there are few places on earth where people enjoy anything approaching the standards of privacy that advocates say we require to be free and self-determining. There have been few times in history when privacy was safe and sacrosanct. It has ever been threatened or oppressed. You might say that is privacy’s native state. Has this really impinged on human flourishing? Has it undermined the progress of freedom? Is privacy oversold?


    Privacy as we have come to understand and appreciate it in the west is a recent innovation. It is a luxury enjoyed by relatively few — and not for long. And it is embedded in modern notions of home and personal space, which citizens of the “First World” take for granted.

    The English origins of privacy, “which became a defining feature of liberal democracy” — articulated in Common Law and informing the US Constitution — “can only distantly be glimpsed in the conflicts between households and authorities,” writes historian David Vincent. In particular, claims to privacy emerged from disputes over property, its protections, and the desire to enjoy it free from physical intrusion or wandering eyes. In medieval London, this was no mean feat; privacy was hard to come by and difficult to defend in such close quarters. At best, it was an aspirational right.

    The average home had few rooms — or none — or certainly, few that were devoted to any single, specific purpose. It might host a workspace or shop, in which case the home was an extension of the public realm, and customers or clients could readily come in and out. Over the next few centuries, English homes came to include several rooms, rooms that offered some seclusion, and which were specialized — for sleeping, eating, or entertaining. The rich of course lead the way; they could afford, and then model, homes with multiple rooms. And as standards of living improved — eventually, gradually — people coveted, and attained, some simulation of this home space.

    The ascendancy of privacy follows growing prosperity. When people had more money, or when society supplied funding, they could build the infrastructure westerners deem essential to privacy. Its rise also seems related to democratization. They are linked — but not in the way privacy advocates think.

    In France, the bourgeoisie was instrumental in elevating privacy, enticing — and morally compelling — others in the process. Privacy becomes synonymous with a kind of comfort and domestic security, affirming the family as a moral refuge amidst the chaos of society at large. Private family life, historians argue, was deemed a necessary counterbalance to the individualism unleashed by the French Revolution, and the mob psychology that engulfed the state, delivering it at turns to anarchy and despotism. Industrialization also prompted the emphasis on home as refuge and sanctuary, a serene, if small, oasis amidst the urban miasma.

    Thus, privacy came to be bound up with the movement to improve the conditions of the working class. They, too, “needed warmth, cleanliness, and pure air,” Roger Henri Guerrand writes in the monumental five-volume opus History of Private Life. “They also wanted privacy for their family and longed desperately for independence. They liked space in which to build and tinker. For all these reasons they dreamed of owning single-family homes,” as exemplified by the bourgeoisie. Privacy slowly but surely became a human rights concern. Workers deserved commodious housing, English activists enjoined, with fenced in gardens in front and rear.

    The 20th century introduced innovations that enhanced and reinforced the private realm further still, solidifying people’s expectations and demands for privacy. This includes, of course, the car: people could now convey themselves and their family when and where they liked, undisturbed by strangers or the weather. At mid-century, the television offered people the opportunity to find entertainment solely at home, behind four walls, and eschew former places of public congregation and interaction. Families came to spend more time with themselves alone — traveling in the car, playing or lounging in the enclosed garden, chuckling together at TV shows, cozily ensconced in their den.

    The Younger Report, which the British government commissioned in 1972 to survey the state of privacy, was acutely aware of what all these developments had wrought — and quickly: “the modern middle-class family, relatively sound-proofed in their semi-detached house, relatively unseen behind their privet hedge… insulated in the family car… are probably more private in the sense of being unnoticed in all their everyday doings than any sizeable section of the population in any other time or place.”


    It is hard to imagine a lived environment that better protects and prioritizes privacy than American suburbia. Privacy, you might say, is the central organizing principle: in our subdivisions, homes have generous setbacks from the street; front porches are a rarity, or they are merely decorative; social life is concentrated in the backyard and in comfortably appointed basements. In suburbia, chance encounters are largely ruled out. Many subdivisions lack sidewalks; as a result, walkers are eyed with suspicion — if they are not your neighbors out for a stroll, walking the dog — why are they here? People don’t simply pass through the subdivision. It is designed precisely to frustrate easy public access. Hence the proliferating cul de sac.

    If you do spy a stranger on the street, the average home offers abundant space in which to hide. In the US, single family homes built today are 60 percent larger than in the 1970s — with fewer residents per household. Suburbanites are downright spoiled with space. What do they do with it all? McMansions boast a bevy of specialized rooms, of course — far more specialized than our bourgeois ancestors could have anticipated: there’s the breakfast nook, the home office, the exercise room, the powder room — the spacious master bathroom (ideally hosting shower and spa tub), the basement bar, “mancave,” and in some of the more extravagant cases (though hardly uncommon), a private movie theater. In other words: a far cry from my mother’s humble digs.

    Though most homeowners can’t afford the aforementioned perks, builders recognize the fetishization of private space, and market accordingly. Consider the “Ultimate Family Home,” which environmentalist Bill McKibben encounters at a homebuilders’ convention: this model home offered a “personal playroom” attached to the boy’s bedroom, outfitted with its own 42-inch plasma TV;” the girl’s bedroom, meanwhile, “had a secret mirrored door leading to a hideaway karaoke room.” An industry representative quipped, “[We] call this the ultimate home for families who don’t want anything to do with one another.”


    In parts of this country, especially New York, a great migration to the ‘burbs has begun anew. The pandemic and associated lockdowns pushed many urban dwellers to their limit — especially those sharing tight spaces with kids learning online. Westchester County alone, north of the Bronx, saw home sales double from last year.

    Home life during the pandemic is peculiar, to say the least, and it is worth wondering what trends or changes are here to stay. Because, scholars do not tire of reminding us, pandemics invariably leave their mark on history, prompting sometimes radical social, political and economic reforms. The change we face, I wager, features entrenched and expanded forms of digital living. Classes will return to school and college campuses, but many online learning techniques — now that teachers have figured them out, or grown accustomed to them — will endure. Work will change, too, as businesses learn that employees can be nearly as productive toiling from home; thus, they can realize savings on pricey office real estate — and spare their workers stressful commutes. COVID is sure to spawn a crisis in commercial real estate, too, as new shopping habits persist. Now that people have learned to rely more on digital retail services — and experience the joy of groceries delivered to your front door — they will be less inclined to trek to the mall. Or to church: a recent poll of young Catholics found that many do not plan to go to mass when the pandemic is over; they will attend online — or not at all.

    Thanks to COVID, we are learning and working and shopping and socializing — and worshipping — online, from home. To manage this new reality, people need the “Ultimate Family Home” more than ever. Kids need space to attend class; parents need peace and quiet for meetings and conference calls. In my own suburban home, we are scattered to the four corners, as far away as possible from one another — and we still manage to get in each other’s way.

    These exceptional circumstances will soon pass, and with it, our dire need for abundant home space. Our expectations and standards of privacy, however, will endure, and grow. But what really is privacy? What do people want, when they seek out private space for themselves, beyond the spying eyes of others?

    In a sadly familiar tale, a friend tells how socializing has changed in her house, thanks to digital technology. Without her intervention, she reports, her family members — including 3 teenage boys — would never see each other on the weekend, but remain happily ensconced in their respective rooms, glued to their cell phones or laptops. I am often amazed at my own teenagers, who are more than willing to spend a whole evening giggling at YouTube videos or social media clips.

    A curious picture starts to emerge of us 21st-century suburban denizens gorging on private space: we yearn to be alone, on our own — to do our thing, away from judging eyes — but each of us is connected to a digital community outside these four walls. Are we private or public citizens, in that case? Never mind the fact that our digital behavior, even if we intend to share or communicate with no one, is routinely monitored by manifold spies. We may hole up in some corner, pull the shades and lock the door, but our digital activity is conducted for all, or many, to see. We know this. And for many, this is hardly upsetting.

    My teenagers, like other so-called “digital natives,” are unperturbed by the spying. It is par for the course. “Why should I care what spies see,” my son asks? What do I have to hide? Why should I be worried that they keep tabs on what toothpaste I buy, the music I listen to, my taste in movies — the stupid, sometimes rude and embarrassing jokes I share on social media — the endless stream of listless, reflexive, barely meaningful text messages? If they want to collect it, be my guest.

    Advocates strain to convince us of the dire importance of privacy, and the grave implications of its loss, but they face a Sisyphean task, especially now that the pandemic has forced us to double down on digital media that expose our lives — by design. How are we to be careful stewards of our personal information, amidst the frenzied digital economy? Privacy is the price we pay for taking advantage of its bountiful conveniences — are we really prepared to forego those conveniences? Are we ready to unfold the maps again, and spread them out against the windshield –instead of using GPS, which divulges my location at any given time? Are we willing to ignore Amazon’s uncanny predictions about our tastes and needs — how it stores my purchase history, and directs me to the exact products I need to refill or replace? Shall I divorce Google Assistant, who knows my full list of daily obligations, and ensures that I do not forget any? Will I really go back to the days of the weekly planner, stacked on my desk, folded in my briefcase, which I occasionally forget to consult, or update?

    That’s not happening. Nor, I’m afraid, will we do much with the time and opportunity that privacy regulations might give us, to study up on privacy policies, weigh them accordingly —  interrogate how companies plan on using our information, what they collect, and to what end. Advocates would like us to be discerning consumers and citizens, who are empowered to give or withhold what our spies want. But who has the time or energy? And what good will it do? Even if we refuse access to our data, the content of my emails, the substance of my purchases, and such, Edward Snowden told us long ago (well, in the digital age, seven years is an eternity) that spies are more interested in our metadata. They are content to know the when, where and how of our digital transactions — as opposed to the what; metadata is plenty revealing.

    Our surrender to digital media, or its predilection for consuming privacy, will be more palatable if we reckon with my mother’s experience — and that of countless others who never knew the luxury of privacy, but found joy, freedom, and power nonetheless.

    Privacy advocates insist that surveillance is a threat to democracy. Citizens need an inviolate space, free from influence or coercion, where they may entertain ideas, thoughts and speech that is controversial or offensive to some. Civil rights gains, which we later take for granted, invariably start with ideas that are deemed offensive. Our right to contemplate them must be protected.

    Except that the experience of civil rights activists looks very different indeed — which is to say, they enjoyed no privacy — but succeeded nonetheless. They were persecuted from the start; they were accorded no peace and safety in which to nurture visions of freedom — without judgement or coercion. Activists in Mississippi were terrorized for so much as meeting to discuss voter registration plans. This did not stop them from orchestrating impressive shows of public power and coordinated protest, which ultimately overturned Jim Crow. Individuals found power in numbers. If anything, their efforts secured a right to privacy — which they did not have at the start.


    “[The] history of America is the history of the right to privacy,” declares Frederick Lane. This makes sense if you understand the Revolution, for example, as being sparked over privacy disputes — the British were invading our warehouses and shops in search of taxable goods; they quartered soldiers in our homes. But again, we should be careful to presume that privacy has been known and valued for long. It turns out that the term was not mentioned — not once — in the US Constitution, the founding document of that nation that supposedly reveres privacy more than most. Only in the 1960s was the right to privacy fully carved out — by, among others, Justice William Douglas, who cites the virtue of sauntering where you will, exemplified by Thoreau. The right to privacy is implied by the Bill of Rights, Douglas argued. You cannot exercise freedom of speech, assembly or religion without it. (Civil rights activists might beg to differ — though obviously, a secure right to privacy makes their job easier.)

    Justice Douglas built on the work of Louis Brandeis, who, before he joined the Supreme Court, authored the first major and specific account of a right to privacy, in the 1890s. Prompted — as usual — by concerns over technology (in this case, the budding field of photojournalism), Brandeis defined privacy as the “right to be left alone.”

    This definition is a perennial touchstone for lawyers and scholars, however, it means that privacy is quite incoherent. What does it mean to be “left alone”? When am I “left alone”? — and who ensures that I am indeed “left alone”? For surely, I might escape judging eyes, or at least their physical presence, but carry their memory with me, perhaps vividly; they may continue to work on me, mold me, or even intimidate, in my solitude. Whether I truly am left alone depends largely on me. It depends on my ability to shed pressure and judgment and shame. It depends on my ability to grow a thick skin, and repel opinions, like so many arrows bouncing off of armor.

    I may have gobs of space, and retreat far within the chambers of my home; that might not be enough to protect me from the harm other people do. Their thoughts and words might still beat me up — if I let it.

    I suspect my mother was steeled by her upbringing, negotiating the whirlwind of family life in that tightly packed space. I suspect she grew tough and strong-willed tussling with her brothers and sisters, sparring over modest resources. She had to make her own private moments — because she had no other choice. She had to carve out room for contemplation, look up at the clouds, drown out the surrounding din, and the endless demands on her time and space. This experience proved invaluable. It enabled her to be a resilient individual, practiced in identifying and defending her wants, sure of her tastes and designs.

    Her lesson for us, too, is invaluable: privacy is what you make it. If it exists at all.


    Top image: “Millard Sheets: Tenement Flats, 1934” by americanartmuseum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.