"We're more popular than Jesus now. I don't know which will go first, rock 'n roll or Christianity." —John Lennon
In an otherwise rambling, drunken session at Elektra Studios in 1969, the Doors recorded a blues-backed jam called “Rock is Dead.” Jim Morrison’s Nietzsche-influenced rant on rock’s death has been repeated by other musicians, reviewers and record store employees countless times. Punk is dead. Grunge is dead. Hip hop? Yeah, that too.
But the phrase is not particular to the modern music tradition. In 2010, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was skewered for saying this during a video interview:
People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time... But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner's mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.
At the time, Switched—now part of Huffpost Tech—led with the headline, “Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Claims Privacy is Dead.”
A little more than a decade earlier, in 1999, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy famously quipped to reporters, “You have zero privacy anyway…Get over it.”
That same year, in the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s annual report, Commissioner Bruce Phillips concluded,
“Is privacy dead? Assuredly it is struggling, but struggle is the eternal and unchanging fate of all freedoms. Freedoms, once lost, can only be regained at the cost of great effort and pain. None can say with certainty that freedom will not be lost here. But if freedom survives at all, so too will privacy, because by definition freedom cannot exist without the right to a life free of surveillance and regimentation. This struggle is far from finished. To paraphrase the American naval hero John Paul Jones, we have just begun to fight.”
Surely, that fight continues.
Especially in light of what some are calling the “Summer of Snowden,” which has brought on a whole new chorus of reports, blogs and posts exclaiming the death knell of privacy. (Just do a Google search for “privacy is dead” and you’ll see what I mean.)
Privacy is fickle. It’s difficult to define—we’ve posted on this before. And clearly social norms around privacy are constantly changing. Technology is changing and our world is changing. But some things stay the same.
Take this Newsweek cover story from 1970, for example. With an onslaught of snoops, bugs, wiretaps, dossiers, data banks and “electric computers,” and with a proliferation of denial of credit incidents, “the elemental right to privacy stands in serious danger—where some concerned Americans are in fact asking whether it may not be dying.”
(You can read the whole thing for yourself by clicking on the thumbnails below.)
Plus, the report, in some respects, espouses eerily similar privacy concerns still debated to this day. True, much of the privacy concerns reported in the article relate to the then unregulated credit reporting industry—but it is reminiscent of similar calls now by the FTC and privacy advocates to regulate the data brokerage industry.
Rapidly changing technology, like today, was a huge driver in the 1970 article. “The traditional, largely unarticulated Anglo-American notion of privacy has been threatened repeatedly since World War II,” the article states, “not because Big Brother has been getting surlier but because the technology has been getting more acrobatic.” Okay, so surly and acrobatic may not be words we may use to describe the NSA’s surveillance programs or the rise in predictive analytics today, but the rise in technology—whether mainframe computers or the modern Internet—has many exclaiming we’re at privacy’s Armageddon.
The article also quotes Harvard University Prof. Charles Fried. “The idea that privacy can’t be invaded at all is utopian,” he said. “There are amounts and kinds of information which previously were not given out and suddenly they have to be given out. People adjust their behavior and conceptions accordingly.” Changing social norms? Sound familiar?
“The central question is whether Americans have been pushed and cajoled into changing their behavior and conceptions too much too soon for their own good—whether they have succumbed too pliantly to the debatable charms of wire-taps, in-depth questionnaires and other up-to-date invaders of the body private,” the article’s author Richard Boeth wrote.
Can’t this same question be asked today? Wire-tapping? Well, we have the NSA. In-depth questionnaires? Could these be the primordial version of checking social networks before hiring a job candidate?
Even Ralph Nader talks about separating individual names from data sets. I was instantly reminded of our modern de-identification debates.
What we considered private 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago, in some instances has changed. I think The Onion really taps into how younger generations will help rewrite the rules of social normalcy. Take this "report," for example, on how every potential 2040 presidential candidate is already unelectable due to unwise Facebook posts.
So, is privacy dead? Well, rock ‘n roll certainly didn’t die after 1969, it just changed a bit.
I’m sure privacy will live on as well, even if it’s in a slightly different form.