Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life

By Helen Nissenbaum | Go to book overview

PART I
INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY'S
POWER AND THREAT

OVER A CENTURY AGO, SAMUEL WARREN AND LOUIS Brandeis started a conversation in the United States about the need for a comprehensive legal right to privacy. They warned, “Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of the private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that 'what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house- tops' ” (1890, 195). Although the discussion they provoked in the legal community was and continues to be important, their warning resounds here not so much for its legal ramifications as for its acute insight into the ways new technologies can so disrupt social life and practices as to threaten moral and political values. In Warren and Brandeis's day, the disruptive technical advances were in photography, which enabled the capture of people's images at a distance and without their permission. Combined with efficient printing machinery, this allowed for cheap publication and wide dissemination of these images.

In the past few decades, privacy has been the rallying cry against another family of technologies: computer-based, digital electronic technologies that have hugely magnified the power of human beings over information. We are able, individually and in groups (organizations, institutions, societies), to gather, store, communicate, analyze, play with, and use information in historically unprecedented ways.

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