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Privacy: Is it dead or just being renegotiated?

Taylor Armerding | March 7, 2016
Personal privacy was a hot topic at RSA this year. And while there was universal agreement that it is a problem, not everybody thinks it is completely dead.

J. Trevor Hughes is also concerned about privacy. As president and CEO of the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), he ought to be.

But his message, in a talk titled “The Future of Privacy,” is that we have been here before, many times.

Beginning with images of famous works of art – the first was a sculpture of the naked goddess Venus surprised while bathing – he said privacy is “baked into the DNA” of people. And it is constantly being “renegotiated” as culture and technology changes.

He noted that the late Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis co-wrote one of the “seminal articles” for the Harvard Law Review while a student there called “The Right to Privacy,” in which he argued that privacy was dead as a result of the flexible film camera, which allowed it to be small, portable and surreptitious, and helped the mass media to illustrate the activities of society’s elites. And that was 126 years ago, in 1890.

Decades later, in the 1960s, with the advent of mainframe computers, there were again declarations that privacy was dead. Thirty years later, in 1997, the cover of Time magazine declared “The Death of Privacy.” It declared basically the same thing in 2013 with a cover on, “The Surveillance Society.”

The point, Hughes said, is that technology keeps raising the issue. “Smartphones have an average of 30 apps, and therefore service providers,” he said, “which means that on any given day, you could have data relationships with hundreds of entities. That is a complex data ecosystem, and our laws are ill equipped to deal with it.”

That issue needs to be addressed, he said, with laws and compliance standards, with accountability of organizations to their employees and customers and by building “privacy by design” into products.

“When we are being observed, we are not truly free,” he said. “But to say privacy is dead,” he said, “is to say what was being said more than 100 years ago.

“No, it isn’t dead,” he said. “What we see is an age-old process, where society renegotiates the boundary.”


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