Academia / Journalism / Letters

Privacy in the information age

“The opening of … mail, like the revelations that the N.S.A. has been monitoring telephone, e-mail, and Internet use, illustrates the intricacy of the relationship between secrecy and privacy. Secrecy is what is known, but not to everyone. Privacy is what allows us to keep what we know to ourselves. … As a matter of historical analysis, the relationship between secrecy and privacy can be stated in an axiom: the defense of privacy follows, and never precedes, the emergence of new technologies for the exposure of secrets.”

Jill Lepore has a great article in this week’s New Yorker in which she reflects on the NSA’s PRISM program through the lens of an 1844 uproar over revelations that the British government had opened the mail of an Italian emigré. The resulting outcry about “post-office espionage” led to a governmental inquiry that established new norms about the privacy of personal letters, resulting in “calls for transparency and an end to secrecy.” She makes a key point about technology, literacy, and the development of a right to privacy: before near-universal literacy, all writing was, in some ways, “secret.” But once everyone could read and write, everyone could be read and written—and they needed to develop new ways to avoid such a fate.

Lepore offers a penetrating analysis of the relationship between genres of writing—in this case, the letter—and concepts of privacy and publicity. Significantly, however, all of her examples come from the mid-Victorian period, after the major postal reforms of 1840, which introduced prepaid postage (previously, the recipient paid) and new mechanisms of postal privacy like envelopes, stamps, and letter boxes. The 1840 reforms marked a systemic revolution, but they were also the culmination of a long process of transforming letters into culturally and legally private documents. In the eighteenth century, it was fairly difficult to keep letters “private”: these were assumed to be documents that were read aloud, shared with family and friends, or even printed for broader circulation. As most buildings did not have numbered street addresses, letters were picked up at  local post offices, themselves public places where a variety of business transactions took place. And it was well known that government oversight of letters was routine: letter writers frequently referred to the possibility that their notes would end up in the Secret Letter Office. As Richard Grenville-Temple, an earl and powerful politician, wrote to a friend 1762, “I am so used to things of this sort at the Post office”—referring to a torn cover on one of his letters—”& am so sure that every line I write must be seen, that I never put any thing in black & white which might not be read at Charing Cross, for all I care.”

Opening letters, then, wasn’t new in the 1840s. But what is fascinating, and historically crucial, is that it was newly seen as a problem. In some ways, we are experiencing the same phenomenon again with the NSA revelations: we have assumed for some time that behavior on the Internet, from what we post on Facebook to what we buy on Amazon, is somewhat “public”—that we are choosing to engage in these forms of self-presentation and are therefore inviting scrutiny. But the extent of the ongoing surveillance, combined with the government’s extensive assertions of secrecy, have newly revealed this as a widespread social problem. It remains to be seen how digital surveillance will impact our ideas about publicity, privacy, and the right to either.

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