Timeline: Privacy in America

Page 1


Privacy in America,


Americans paradoxically combine an unquenchable curiosity with an insistance on being left alone

Research by Emma Huitric SOURCE: Ben Franklin’s Web Site by Robert Ellis Smith, Publisher of Privacy Journal, 2000

Illustration by Kenn Brown


Privacy in America

, 1600–2008

SOCIAL LIFE AND TECHNOLOGY 1600s : The clergy, who keep records of births, marriages and deaths, cast an ever widening net for information about civic affairs. In Massachusetts, “tythingmen,” or government watchdogs, inspect households for proper moral conduct.

Massachusetts Bay Colony Grant

1700s: Very little pri-

1629: Massachusetts Bay Colony: Settlement with one of the first and best record databases on population. Information on births, marriages, deaths, wills and more was recorded.


1600s : Under Puritan rules, it is a civic duty to keep an eye on your neighbor. In many towns, people are forbidden to live alone.


vacy exists within house-holds; family members and even guests customarily share beds.


As settlements were established and more people immigrated, the church began playing a smaller role in people’s day-to-day lives. Although families lived together (affording little privacy within the home), privacy from ones surroundings was expected. Most settlers had left Europe due to persecution, and sought to live and express themselves freely, hence the demand for privacy. The new saying was, “Let every one meddle with his own business.”

1700s: Private life is seen as a haven from public turmoil. The colonists concur with the English and the Romans that “a man’s home is his castle.”



1775: First Postal Service instigated; no confidentiality assured. 1700s: Mail is routinely opened as it passes through the postal system.

1790: First 1782: Congress enforces postal confidentiality

national census is conducted.

1800s: The “penny press” publishes unbridled gossip about the private lives of celebrities, under the protection of the First Amendment.

1800 1791: The Bill of Rights protects 1787: The U.S. Constitution stipulates that a census be conducted once a decade. Many people regard the census with mistrust.

GIPSTEIN/CORBIS (Preamble to the Constitution); CRAIG BREWER (Bill of Rights)

freedom of speech and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.


1876: Alexander Graham mid-1800s: Sealed Samuel Morse

1838: The telegraph is introduced, and the bugging of telegraphed messages begins.

Bell invents the telephone.

envelopes are invented. Postal confidentiality further assured.

1877: First moving pictures

1890: First Kodak snapshot camera is invented. Automatic counting machine developed by Census Bureau. Large collection of data now feasible.

c. 1900: Fingerprints are established as unique and unchangeable identifiers.

1900 1890: Samuel D. Warren, Jr. and Louis D. Brandeis argue for a right to privacy in the Harvard Law Review.

1861-1865: Civil War: Confederates use information from the census to track down Southern military camps. Mistrust toward the Census and government access to citizens’ personal information increases.

1868: 14th Amendment guarantees the right to privacy for all U.S. citizens irrespective of race and color.

1890s: Lawenforcement agencies begin tapping wires on early telephone networks.


PATRICIA WINNE (Samuel Morse illustration); LILA RUBENSTEIN (confi dential seal illustration); BETTMANN/CORBIS (telephone receiver); MARK CLEMENS (thumbprint illustration); EARLY OFFICE

1950s: Civilian trust for

1948: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred C. Kinsey is published. Starts off by openly discussing individuals’ sexual nature. Previously, sex was a private issue kept to oneself.

1907: First dictograph (bugging apparatus) is invented.


1930 1928: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the seizure of electronic conversations is constitutional.

the government and authorities is high. The Cold War prompts the government to increase surveillance of populations without their knowledge.

1940 1934: Congress Federal Communications Act Section 605: Prohibits a third party from intercepting and using any communication without the authorization of the sender. This, however, had very little impact on preventing such a practice.


1936: Social Security numbers are assigned to most adult Americans and become a lifelong piece of personal identity.

E MUSEUM (earlyofďŹ cemuseum.com) (dictograph illustration); DAVID MUIR (gavel); BETTMANN/CORBIS (social security card); KENN BROWN (keyhole illustration)

SOCIAL LIFE AND TECHNOLOGY 1973: “There is growing concern that computers now constitute, or will soon constitute, a dangerous threat to individual privacy.” – Horst Feistel

1976: Whitfield Diffi and Martin E. Hellman invent public-key encryption.

“Cryptography and Computer Privacy”; Scientific American, May 1973.

1975: Personal computers become commercially available.


1970 1972: Watergate scandal:

1966: Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is passed.

1967: In the case of Katz v. United States, the Supreme Court rules that intercepting communications requires a warrant.

1968: Congress passes a law providing for wiretap warrants in criminal investigations. The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, Title III (sometimes referred to as the “end of privacy”), specifices when a warrant is required for wiretapping.

President Nixon (claiming the security of the nation) ordered the wiretapping of government agents as well as the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters.

1978: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) creates a secret federal court for issuing wiretap warrants in national security cases.

Richard M. Nixon


ARCHIVE HOLDINGS, INC. (computer technician); AP PHOTO (Richard Nixon); H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS (old personal co

fie n


1989: The World Wide Web service is added to the Internet.

1980s: DNA

2004: Facebook,

fingerprinting and cellular telephones become commonplace.


1978–1994: Congress passes refinements to the wiretapping laws, first in response to the abuses of the Watergate era and later to require telecommunications companies to be “wiretap-ready.”

the popular social-networking Web site, makes its debut.

1995: The term “spyware” is used for the first time.



1990s: In-

2001: The USA

creasing cases of a new crime called identify theft are being reported.

PATRIOT Act grants authorities broad discretion to search databases and conduct sur veillance.

omputer); BETTMANN/CORBIS (man with listening device); JEFF BRICE (computer collage); FACEBOOK (logo)

2008: Congress updates the 1978 wiretapping law, expanding the surveillance powers of the executive branch. President George W. Bush signs a national security directive that expands the surveillance of Internet traffic to and from the U.S. government.