Wednesday, 16th October 2013
Surveillance, Privacy and History
Source: History & Policy
The postal espionage crisis of 1844 sparked the first panic over the privacy of citizens, and offers lessons from history for those grappling with the Edward Snowden revelations about the surveillance of digital communication.
The narratives of national liberty coincided with structures of national power in the nineteenth century. Now there is growing tension between the rights of British citizens and transnational processes of communication and surveillance.
The current controversy is generated by the collision between security and privacy expectations. It cannot be treated merely as a problem for the Foreign Office. The Government needs to generate a response which engages with both the conduct of espionage and the rapidly changing practices of digital communication.
Secrecy about secrecy in the conduct of state surveillance can only be defended by an appeal to 'honourable secrecy', which no longer has the credibility it assumed in the nineteenth century.
The more recent past suggests that the conditions for explosions of public concern over systems of state surveillance are widely present, and that the intervals between panics are shortening.
'The statistical measurement of communication behaviour' from postal flows to Facebook traffic began with the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840. This form of counting provides objective and challenging evidence of the actual impact of privacy crises.
The lack of change in people's communications behaviour in the 1840s suggests privacy crises today may not alter the massive flow of digital messaging between individuals.
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By Adrian Janes
Having begun his career in academic libraries, Adrian Janes has subsequently worked extensively in public libraries, chiefly in enquiry work as an Information Services librarian. In this role he has had particular responsibility for information from both the UK Government and the European Union. He wrote a detailed report on sources for the latter which was published by FreePint in 2007, and has contributed articles to FreePint and ResourceShelf. He is involved in training in information literacy and the use of online reference resources.
A Contributing Editor to DocuTicker, he also write reviews for Pennyblackmusic.
Adrian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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