Silicon Valley "tech bros" like to tell us that privacy doesn't matter (while quietly profiting off those gullible enough to believe them) and our elected representatives frequently parrot their nonsense.

Earlier this week, the New Yorker published Why Do We Care So Much About Privacy?, a book promotion dressed up like an editorial. Meandering its way through an examination of US legal precedent since the second industrial revolution, the author eventually concludes that privacy looks a lot like liberty. How profound.

More disturbingly, he asserts the American concept of privacy is merely a by-product of 1890's US law and subsequent clashes with technological progress. Rubbish. As a fundamental component of democracy, privacy is much more enduring. All modern democracies trace their roots to the Athenian state, c. 300 BC.

A completely new element is thus introduced into the constitution: private ownership. According to the size of their property in land, the rights and duties of the citizens of the state are now assessed, and in the same degree to which the classes based on property gain influence, the old groups of blood relationship lose it.

Friedrich Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1884

Where there exists democratic capitalism, there must also exist the legal foundations of private ownership. This is the true origin of modern privacy, an idea which has survived global war, economic depression, and erosion by governments and corporations. Our personal privacy has come under attack throughout history, but privacy itself isn't "going away" any more than the production or consumption of goods.

And that, The New Yorker, is why we "care so much about privacy" - not for its legal precedents or its championed ideals, but because it is an institution which has shaped our world for over 2,300 years.

Published June 14, 2018

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