In the fascinating New Yorker article, “The Prism”, Jill Lepore chronicles the history of privacy through time, trying to solve some mysteries, such as why many organizations that promote privacy also promote government openness. Towards the end of the article, Lepore mentions a paradox: how come our age is obsessed with privacy while revealing every small detail of our lives on Facebook?

This has led, in our own time, to the paradox of an American culture obsessed, at once, with being seen and with being hidden, a world in which the only thing more cherished than privacy is publicity. In this world, we chronicle our lives on Facebook while demanding the latest and best form of privacy protection—ciphers of numbers and letters—so that no one can violate the selves we have so entirely contrived to expose.

Perhaps this mystery, to borrow one of the article’s concepts, is not a mystery at all, but a misunderstanding of what privacy is and can be, beyond its narrow legal definition. To understand the roots of this misunderstanding, let us look at an earlier passage in the article:

(The history of privacy is bounded; privacy, as an aspiration, didn’t really exist before the rise of individualism, and it got good and going only with the emergence of a middle class.) Nineteenth-century Americans were obsessed with the idea of privacy and the physical boundaries that marked it, like the walls of a house, and, equally, with the holes in those walls, like mail slots cut into doors.

First, there is the obvious factual mistake in this passage. Privacy is an old concept, discussed, analyzed and applied well before the middle class came into existence. One example is the ancient Hebrew law, in which a lively debate over privacy, started at the year 500bc. the debate revolves around a simple question: whether a person can open a window that watches over a common courtyard? The debacle had culminated in the definition of the concept of Heiz’ek Ha’reiya, literally translated as ‘the damage of being seen’. This concept encapsulated many of the definitions of modern privacy: autonomy and freedom, measuring the damage to privacy and ways to mitigate the damage. It also includes many elements that would seem foreign and obsolete when thinking about the need for privacy: modesty and protection against the ‘evil eye’.

The paper by Brandeis and Warren is tight to a specific architectural object, the middle class home, devising ways to protect its clear boundaries between the inside (private) and outside (public.) People who do not own a house, who do not own property, or are in situations where property does not exist, cannot enjoy the right to privacy, as promised by Warrens and Brandeis. For example, teenagers, students, the poor, are not covered by the mechanisms we assume should protects all’s privacy. Also, when privacy cannot eb enforced within a framework of strict dichotomy (e.g., between the inside and the outside), then the Warrens and Brandeis concept cracks down. This is becoming a critical issue when thinking about complicated situations such as the one happening on Facebook, when information is shared voluntarily with other people, in a public environment, but users have still privacy concerns. How can we analyze this situation? How can we design mechanisms that would help users control their own privacy even in a public place? What is privacy in a public place at all? Does it exist?

Here is where the public courtyard, from the Hebrew law, can serve as a useful metaphor. The public courtyard contains a mixture of public and private activities, and very much like Facebook, everything that happens in the courtyard in contextualized in different situations and for different people. Ensuring that people regain control over their information these environments is a difficult task. It can relate to modern theories of privacy, such as the ones by Alan Westin and Helen Nissenbaum.


Middle Class House at Boston - 19th Century

Middle Class House at Boston – 19th Century

Public courtyard - 500BC

Public courtyard – 500BC