What We Talk About When We Talk About Privacy

The past, present, and future of a public anxiety

Long before Edward Snowden made his revelations about the workings of the NSA, privacy was a source of anxiety to many Americans -- and to many people around the world. Most of us have a sense that our privacy is something to be protected. Most of us also have a sense that our privacy is under threat from violation. For most of us, though, those senses are vague. What, exactly, is privacy? And what, exactly, do we mean when we talk about it?

In the video above, three prominent thinkers discuss the past and future of privacy in the United States. Privacy, they point out, has always been contingent on the culture and the technology of the people who aim to preserve it -- and to violate it. "Government intrusion was not a factor, I would say, until the turn of the 20th century," the law professor Robert Ellis Smith notes. After all, he points out, private information needed to be recordable, through telegrams and telephones, before it could be recorded. And it wasn't until the development of programs like Social Security, public assistance, and educational loans and grants that the government, for its part, became a large collector of citizen information. It wasn't until we had computers to store vast amounts of information that we started to worry about what our leaders might do with that information.

What the video's experts point to, from their varied perspectives, is the idea that our laws and our social norms need to do a better job of keeping up with our racing-forward technologies. So many of the laws that govern our treatment of privacy at the moment are based on pre-Internet frameworks, the Cato Institute's Julian Sanchez points out. "It may be," he says, "that by the time the courts get around to considering the appropriateness of some new method of technological surveillance, the technology has moved on." The recent revelations about the NSA, in other words -- not to mention all the other revelations that have been leaking out about how governments and corporation put our private data to public use -- might be beneficial. They could serve as a reminder that our broad approach to privacy may be in need of a significant overhaul. "We really are in dire need of meaningful rules to level the playing fields," Nissenbaum puts it, "so that the values to which we subscribe -- as societies, as cultures, as communities -- can continue to be maintained."

For more videos by PBS Off Book, visit http://video.pbs.org/program/off-book/.

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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