Information Governance

The History of American Data Privacy

Data Privacy Day 2019

graphic for Data Privacy Day 2019 blog

Today is Data Privacy Day, which marks the anniversary of International Data Protection Treaty Convention 108. However, the legal struggles to give people the right to safeguard their personal information long predate the Convention – and even the computer. In America alone, data privacy has a long, winding, and storied history.

Data privacy in the 19th century

One of the major privacy concerns of early 19th century America was the unreliability of private mail. Several of the Founding Fathers were wary that letters they sent would be read by a postal officer before they reached their recipient. In a letter to John Taylor, Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “I owe you a political letter, yet the infidelities of the post office and the circumstances of the times are against my writing fully & freely”.

The 1877 case Ex parte Jackson, which dealt with mail being inspected on suspicion of containing illegal lottery tickets, resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that “sealed” mail like letters and packages could not be opened by the government without a warrant.

The 20th century and the rise of the computer

As computers became more affordable and capable of storing larger amounts of information, experts knew that these machines, which would soon form the backbone of the world infrastructure, required oversight.

In 1973, the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare published a report titled “Records, Computers, and the Rights of Citizens.” While not actual legislature, the report predicted much of the privacy challenges of the latter half of the century, including the use of the Social Security Number as a universal identifier.

The report also suggested a Code of Fair Information Practice, containing principles like “there must be a way for an individual to find out what information about him is in a record and how it is used” and “there must be a way for an individual to prevent information about him that was obtained for one purpose from being used or made available for other purposes without his consent.” This would lay the initial groundwork for concrete privacy legislation in the coming decades.

Challenges of the 21st century and beyond

The battle over data privacy has become more critical as an ever-growing amount of data has become essential in our lives. The California state legislature recently passed AB 375, a bill that regulates privacy and collection similarly to the GDPR; a federal version, spurred on by support from industry leaders like Tim Cook, may soon arrive on the Congressional floor.

Though the scale and scope of data has changed vastly from the era of Ben Franklin’s mail service, the essential challenge remains: How to protect personal information from breaches and exploitation. This Data Privacy Day, take the opportunity to ask yourself if your company is trying its best to achieve this goal. If not, we can help.

I'm a Bay Area native who enjoys writing about the endlessly fascinating field of information governance. In my spare time, I enjoy making board games, baking, and attempting to convince everyone I know to watch The Genius.