How privacy’s past may shape its future

Volume 375| Issue 6578| 21 Jan 2022


Policy Forum
How privacy’s past may shape its future
BY Alessandro Acquisti, Laura Brandimarte, Jeff Hancock
20 Jan 2022: 270-272
An account of privacy’s evolutionary roots may hold lessons for policies in the digital age
Continued expansion of human activities into digital realms gives rise to concerns about digital privacy and its invasions, often expressed in terms of data rights and internet surveillance. It may thus be tempting to construe privacy as a modern phenomenon—something our ancestors lacked and technological innovation and urban growth made possible. Research from history, anthropology, and ethnography suggests otherwise. The evidence for peoples seeking to manage the boundaries of private and public spans time and space, social class, and degree of technological sophistication. Privacy—not merely hiding of data, but the selective opening and closing of the self to others—appears to be both culturally specific and culturally universal (1). But what could explain the simultaneous universality and diversity of a human drive for privacy? An account of the evolutionary roots of privacy may offer an answer and teach us about privacy’s digital future and how to manage it (2).