Privacy's Evolution Throughout U.S. History

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Privacy books are like "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." Some are too big and some are too small. By big, I mean that some are scholarly and unreadable. They can be useful, but they aren't light reading or easily recommended. By small, I mean that some are too journalistic and lacking in depth and analysis.


Robert Ellis Smith's new book, "Ben Franklin's Web Site: Privacy and Curiosity from Plymouth Rock to the Internet," falls in the middle. It is readable, interesting, thoughtful and different. The author is well-known in the privacy community and has published the monthly Privacy Journal since 1974.


Smith organizes his book by themes relating to privacy as they emerged over the course of American history. For the early Colonial period, the theme is watchfulness. As the United States was formed in the late 18th century, the theme is mistrust. The expansion of the United States during the 19th century is represented by a chapter on space and one on curiosity. Other chapters focus on wiretaps, sex, numbers (as in Social Security numbers), data banks and cyberspace. Smith does not shoehorn his themes into strict periods, but he lets them overlap freely and naturally.


The result is a sort of history of privacy, but with a much broader focus on America and Americans. Smith demonstrates an impressive range of disciplines with material from history, sociology, philosophy, architecture and elsewhere, which is much of what makes the book so interesting.


Another refreshing characteristic of the book is its honest portrayal of privacy. Smith does not pick out just the pro-privacy elements of American culture and argue that more privacy is an essential feature of America. He admits honestly that American views on privacy are ambivalent, and he documents all sides.


I learned a lot from the history of the postal system. Smith traces the evolution of the U.S. Postal Service and the importance of postal secrecy in early America. He shows the increasing regulatory attempts to protect mail against snooping. It was technology - in the form of the adhesive envelope in the mid-1800s - that provided the greatest advance in postal secrecy. The interplay of privacy and technology is a theme of the book and a continuing theme in today's struggles over privacy on the Internet, surveillance cameras and encryption.


The 2000 census was a hot privacy issue throughout the country, aided and abetted by advance politicking over the effect on reapportionment of the House of Representatives. Smith shows that concern about the census is a hoary American tradition, fueled by concerns about privacy and government intrusion. Perhaps for good reason. Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman used the census during his famous march. The census records enabled him to find concentrations of industry to destroy.


I also learned that an American president was a strong privacy advocate during his service in the House more than 100 years ago. James Garfield was chairman of a House committee on the census and spoke about the need for more confidentiality protections. Garfield later spoke out about the need for confidentiality in telegrams.


Smith does not say whether Garfield's advocacy of privacy helped advance his political career. Garfield was elected president in 1880, but he was shot a few months later and died before serving a year in office. The assassin was a disgruntled job seeker, so there may not be much of a lesson there.


I don't have the space or the inclination to take issue with Smith's discussion of privacy case law. He offers a good history of Supreme Court pronouncements on privacy matters, including the factual context of significant decisions. Like any other lawyers, he and I have disagreements about the meaning and importance of the decisions.


The intriguing title of the book comes from Smith's conclusion that if Ben Franklin were alive today, he would have a Web site that dispensed advice about privacy tempered with pragmatism. Smith proceeds to offer his own broad prescriptions for corporations and for individuals. His recommendations for corporate record keepers are firmly rooted in fair information practices.


The most interesting advice for individuals is to choose your battles. Not every collection of personal information is worthy of a major fight. His other recommendations help people differentiate between big and small issues.


The book has a few flaws. Rep. Frank Horton, who was involved in privacy activities in the House in the 1960s, was a Republican, not a Democrat. Smith effectively punctuates his book with quotes from various individuals, but too many quotes have no source. The book also would have been better served with some judicious editing.


Nevertheless, I recommend the book. If it sounds entertaining to you, order a copy at Smith's Web site, www.townonline.com/ privacyjournal. You can probably get it from Amazon.com as well, but I guarantee you that Smith offers book buyers better privacy protections than Amazon. Of course, that isn't hard.


Also new on the privacy bookshelf is the 2000 edition of Marc Rotenberg's "Privacy Law Sourcebook," a compilation of national and international laws and documents on privacy. The new edition has the Safe Harbor documents and other recent items. Don't process personal data without it! Go to the bookstore at www.epic.org. n


• Robert Gellman is a Washington-based privacy and information policy consultant and former chief counsel to the House subcommittee on information, justice, transportation and agriculture.
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