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Historical sources

Privacy is being discussed more than ever today, when many data collection scandals have made
headlines worldwide. Privacy today is closely correlated to data collection, as we have more
computational power to process the big data and analyze it.

Privacy, even though mentioned since the 14th century, didn’t have a clear definition until the late
19th century, when Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis described privacy as the right to be left alone
[1]. Privacy started to become relevant during this time, since more and more technological
advancements were taking place. Inventions such as the instantaneous camera, wiretapping etc.,
were questioning this principle that Warren and Brandeis had developed. These inventions came as
solutions to societal issues of the time, mainly from various breakthrough in fundamental research.
But, following the linear model of innovation, the engineers had failed to understand what the real
users wanted and it caused an upsetting in the society. An example of this are the IBM’s punched
cards as explained in an article by Steven Lubar [2].

As Lubar shows in his article, punched cards were used by different businesses and also governments
for data collection purposes. They held a great importance for them as the whole user data was
stored there, thus forming the campaign that Lubar would describe as: “Do not Fold, Spindle or
Mutilate”. Folding, Spindling or Mutilating made punched cards’ data unreadable, something
undesirable by their issuers, but which backlashed with the society of the time. Unlike today, the
data collection wasn’t really seen at privacy infringement, but rather the dehumanization and
abstraction of the society, as the article demonstrates. People thought that the data on these
punched cards was a 2D version of them and that made them do the contrary of what they were
asked to, they started folding, spindling and mutilating the punched cards. This, along with various
other protests, as the one of Berkeley students, that Lubar denotes in his article, show the
participation by protest of the time’s society. It also showed that the users’ needs were not taken
into the consideration before the development of the product, but rather as one of the last chains in
the process of linear innovation.

Data collection, even though may seem harmless, had some major consequences to society in the
Second World War and showed that in the wrong hands it could be very dangerous. One example of
that is the exceptional population registration data that the Netherlands had established, which also
included the race, address and religion of the population, as illustrated in an article by Marnix Croex
[3]. All this data fell into the hands of Nazi occupation, which used it to locate and then proceed to
kill the Jewish population. What really shows the power of data is when comparing the death
percentage of Jewish people in Netherlands which was the highest of all countries with 73% killed, in
country to Belgium’s 40% or France’s 20%, where different from the Netherlands, no such specialized
population data was registered [4]. What might be considered a tragedy to the Dutch society, can be
contributed to the linear model of innovation that the population registration system was based on.
It was focused on collecting as much information on the population, disregarding their privacy. Once
again, the people who created it, based the system on what they thought was the best for the
(projected) users and society, failing to understand what the real users and society needed.
Present Day Sources
Privacy and data collection are among of the most discussed topics today. As technological
innovation is advancing more and more, so is our ability to collect and analyze big amount of data.
This data has different and powerful uses like advertisements, profiling users, helping to predict
trends, etc. From Sony Data’s Breach [5] to Cambridge Analytica [6], it is clearly visible what effect
our data can have and how important it really is. But as technology seems to be advancing at a very
fast rate, the same cannot be said about the online privacy laws. Not so clearly defined and outdated
laws meant that until today, the companies have been self-regulating regarding the privacy of their
users. This was not so welcomed from the society, as it was seen that not only these companies were
not transparent with users about their data, but also were used to affect society directly, by
intervening on elections as shown in the Cambridge Analytica case.

In order to intervene with such huge problems, the European Parliament decided to put in power a
new regulation, the GDPR [7]. According to the GDPR site, it states that: “The EU General Data
Protection Regulation […] was designed to harmonize data privacy laws across Europe, to protect and
empower all EU citizens data privacy and to reshape the way organizations across the region
approach data privacy.” This law, contrary to a technocratic approach, concentrated more on what
the real users really wanted. It made their data transparent to them and made possible that EU could
issue huge fines for companies that violate this law.

The GDPR was seen as necessary by the EU, after seeing the impact that Facebook’s Cambridge
Analytica case had. Facebook, being one of the biggest companies in the world, relies on data to
offers users personalized ads. Relying so much on user data, Facebook decided to turn into a
technocratic company, not taking input from its users, as shown on the article “Facebook in 2011”
[8]. The society, taking a participatory stance, has protested many times culminating with the protest
of thousands of users campaigning to boycott Facebook [9]. EU representatives and Facebook’s CEO
Mark Zuckerberg also discussed Facebook privacy issues, in a what could be considered a
participation by meditation [10]. Even though this does not solve the privacy issues on social medias,
and especially Facebook [11], it was a necessary first step.

Another privacy issue today is mass surveillance by the government. One example of this is “De
Sleepwet” case in the Netherlands, which Leon Smits analyzes [12]. Frightened by terrorism, Dutch
government voted for a new law which approved some questionable moves from the National Dutch
Security Agency such as access to web history, electronic devices etc. This way, the Dutch
government could have access to every information of their citizens. This was controversial for the
Dutch society, that saw this more like violation of privacy and basic human rights. Participation by
protest, in a form of referendum was taken in this case by Dutch people, which as Smits states in his
writing, was started by only 5 students and went then generate more than 400000 signatures, so a
national referendum could take place. The article went further to elaborate that, when an innocent
person knows he is being surveilled, they express themselves the same way as the majority, even if
they don’t agree with that point of view. That is a serious threat to democracy and could lead to
more irreparable damage to the society.
Coming from the past, a lost has changed regarding privacy. This was driven mostly by major
technological advancements. In the past privacy was more linked to one’s property and house and
slowly evolved to include things such as one’s data.

When first introduced to collection of their data, people were concerned, but for different reasons
that today. In the past this data was seen more as a dehumanization of people, something that
would force people to adapt to the technology that they created. At that point in time (mid-20th
century) privacy was not seen as a big issue that could come from all this data collection. This could
maybe contribute to the simple technology of the time, which could store only basic information,
such as loaned books, course etc. This view has changed totally nowadays. Rather than
dehumanization, we see data storage as a necessary mean to store valuable information. Although,
people are now more concerned about privacy, as these data can be used to profile people, have
their data used without consent etc.

Although the differences between the times, it can be argued that if wrong data ends up on wrong
hands undesirable things can happen. As shown in the examples of the Jewish people killing in the
Netherlands to the manipulation of the United States election, data has always been of a great value
and should be carefully protected.

As the technology continues to advance in a very fast pace, we might face a totally digital world. In
such a world the sovereignty of our data will be a very difficult thing to handle, unless very strict laws
are put into place. Also in a digital world privacy would be also very difficult to maintain, as we are
transferring everything online. Another risk to privacy could be the threat of terrorism or war, which
would make governments become more and more controlling of their citizens’ data. Our main
challenge for now should be to adopt new laws, that would be able to preserve our privacy and data
sovereignty and that will be able to change with the same pace as the technology does.
[1] Samuel D. Warren, Louis D. Brandeis, “The right to privacy”, Harvard Law Review, V. IV, No. 5,
December 1890

[2] Lubar, S. “Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate”: A Cultural History of the Punch Card, The Journal of
American Culture, 1992

[3] Croes, Marnix: “The Holocaust in the Netherlands and the Rate of Jewish Survival Holocaust and
Genocide Studies”, V20 N3, Winter 2006, 474-499.

genocides/21, May 31, 2018

[5] Joseph Steinberg, “Massive Security Breach At Sony -- Here's What You Need To Know”, Forbes,
what-you-need-to-know/#cd37af244d85, May 31, 2018

[6] Sam Meredith, “Facebook-Cambridge Analytica: A timeline of the data hijacking scandal”, CNBC,
scandal.html, May 31, 2018

[7] GDPR Portal, “EU GDPR Portal”, EUGDPR,, May 31, 2018

[8] Barnett, W. & Han, A. “Facebook in 2011”, Stanford Graduate Business School,, May 31, 2018

[9] Nicola Slawson, “Faceblock campaign urges users to boycott Facebook for a day”, The Guardian,
facebook-for-one-day-protest-cambridge-analytica-scandal, May 31, 2018

[10] Jennifer Rankin, “Mark Zuckerberg to appear before European parliament”, The Guardian,
evidence-at-european-parliament, May 31, 2018

[11] Kevin Roose, ‘Can Social Media Be Saved?’, New York Times,, May 31, 2018

[12] Leon Smits “De Sleepwet: Why five students are trying to protect the privacy of Dutch citizens”, ,
University of Amsterdam,
five-students-are-trying-to-protect-the-privacy-of-dutch-citizens/, May 31, 2018