The forces of wealth creation once fostered the right to be left alone. But that has changed.
For much of human history, what we now call “privacy” was better known as being rich. Privacy, like wealth, was something that most people had little or none of. Farmers, slaves and serfs resided in simple dwellings, usually with other people, sometimes even sharing space with animals. They had no expectation that a meaningful part of their lives would be unwatchable or otherwise off limits to others. That would have required homes with private rooms. And only rich people had those.
The spread of mass privacy, surely one of modern civilization’s more impressive achievements, thus depended on another, even more impressive achievement: the creation of a middle class. Only over the past 300 years or so, as increasingly large numbers of people gained the means to control their physical environment through the acquisition of wealth and private property, did privacy norms and eventually privacy rights come into existence. What is a right to privacy without a room of your own?
The historical link between privacy and the forces of wealth creation helps explain why privacy is under siege today. It reminds us, first, that mass privacy is not a basic feature of human existence but a byproduct of a specific economic arrangement — and therefore a contingent and impermanent state of affairs. And it reminds us, second, that in a capitalist country, our baseline of privacy depends on where the money is. And today that has changed.
The forces of wealth creation no longer favor the expansion of privacy but work to undermine it. We have witnessed the rise of what I call “attention merchants” and what the sociologist Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism” — the commodification of our personal data by tech giants like Facebook and Google and their imitators in telecommunications, electronics and other industries. We face a future in which active surveillance is such a routine part of business that for most people it is nearly inescapable. In this respect, we are on the road back to serfdom.
That future, however, is not preordained, for Americans overwhelmingly want stronger privacy protections. But that will require laws that do not merely tinker with but fundamentally alter the economics of privacy.
To be sure, ours is not the first era in which privacy has come under attack. American moralists at the height of the temperance movement pushed for laws that gave the police broad authority to break into homes and arrest drinkers, adulterers and gay men. Authoritarian and totalitarian states, insecure in their power, have always fought mass privacy with their spies and extensive networks of secret police, as have democratic countries at war or in times of unrest.
But none of these opponents of privacy had capitalism firmly on its side. In the United States, it is safe to say, privacy “won” the 20th century. Its crowning triumph was the Supreme Court’s recognition in 1965 of a constitutional right to privacy, but the legal victory should not obscure the economic forces that were its foundation.
By the 1960s the rise of a propertied middle class had put each man in his “castle,” each drinker in his saloon, each worker in his own office and each child in her own bedroom.
Private physical spaces, along with semiprivate spaces like motels, bathhouses and dance clubs, created their own expectations of privacy (as did, later, virtual spaces like personal computers and hard drives). It was on those foundations that legal thinkers and activists began to speak of the masses enjoying a right to privacy, to be unwatched — a right to be “left alone.” Capitalism was on privacy’s side.
In those earlier times, surveillance wasn’t particularly profitable, but over the last two decades, new technologies coupled with new theories of value have transformed the economics of privacy. A drastic decrease in the cost of mass surveillance (thanks to the internet) has increased the value of two types of asset: our data and our attention. The race to maximize those assets by companies big and small has made surveillance a growth industry. It is in this sense that capitalism has begun to change sides.