Did you know?

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We thought it might be fun to dig a little deeper into some commonly used words in our industry. For instance, what do you know about the origin of the word and concept of privacy?

Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to restrict or safeguard information. It appears that the word privacy was first used in the 15th century and the word originates from the old French word privauté which means “a secret, secret deed; solitude”.

Privacy is not a new concept – as early as 350 BC, Aristotle talked about public (polis) and private (Oikos) aspects of one’s life. In early colonial times, the US had laws against eavesdropping. Early US law focused on protecting information in mail initially and later in telegrams. Did you know Benjamin Franklin, the first Postmaster General required that employees in the mail service swear that they will not open the mail?

Contours of the current concepts of Privacy can be traced back to the 4th amendment (which provides an expectation of “privacy” in the context of government searches – “rights of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated …”) and the 5th amendment (where individuals can exercise a right to keep incriminating information “private”).

In 1886, the Boyd v. United States ruling talked about privacy a little more “It is not the breaking of his doors, and the rummaging of his drawers, that constitutes the essence of the offense; but it is the invasion of his indefeasible right to personal security, personal liberty, and private property…” But it was in the 1890 essay, “The right to have Privacy” by Warren and Brandeis in the Harvard Law Review that begins to define Privacy as we understand it today. In fact, their concerns about privacy came from the impact of new technology – namely “instantaneous photography”. This should resonate with us in 2020 – how many times have we wondered about the impact of new technology on our data?

Other key milestones along the way were the survey by William Prosser in 1960 of the lawsuits spurred by the Warren and Brandeis article and the laws enacted starting from the 1960s to now (including the Freedom of information act, Fair information practices act, the Privacy act, the Electronics communications privacy act, HIPPA, COPPA, etc). Case law and state regulations (in California, New York, Hawaii, etc) have also helped to define Privacy as we know it today.

For more information on this fascinating subject, you can read the articles listed in the reference that has been loosely summarized here.

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