• Dr. Timothy Smith

Why Privacy Matters

Girl Hiding

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

People and other animals such as the chimpanzee become anxious when they are unable to find privacy. Privacy relates to the physical and mental protection of oneself from public view, contact, or judgement. The concept of privacy continues to develop over time and forms an essential point of contention in our increasingly less private digital world. A compromising photograph at the office Christmas party or summer barbeque becomes an instant and permanent public record across the digital world with the simple snap of a smartphone camera and subsequent upload to social media. The transformation from private to public now happens in an instant, but the evolution of privacy goes far back. In a remarkable book titled, Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History by Mark Girouard, the author walks through the evolution of the English country house from the Medieval hall to the elaborate country manor, which reached its apex in the grand English manors of the nineteenth century. Girouard describes the early Medieval hall as a place of shelter, meeting, sleeping, and eating for all the members of the community from lord to servant, but over centuries through the Enlightenment, the relationship between the lord and the others began to separate. In early times, the lord dined with the people. By steps, the social order in England evolved, the lord and important house members and guests began to separate from the crowd and eat at a raised table at the end of the hall. Eventually, the lord and guests left the hall altogether for private dining rooms. Similarly, private bedrooms and meeting rooms emerged in the English country house to further separate the lord of the manor from the rest of the people, creating more private spaces. The increasing seclusion of the lord followed, in part, due to the increasingly more complex social ranking developing in their society. The expanding power of the lords required more privacy in part to protect secrets or for safety. Many animals require privacy too. Zoologists have observed that many types of zoo animals need a shelter where they can have privacy from human observation and even other animals in their enclosure. Animals that do not have privacy often display signs of stress and anxiety.

At its heart, privacy holds an intimate relationship with safety. From a physical perspective, anyone who feels the chance of being physically harmed, hunted, or stalked will experience anxiety in open or unsafe situations. Evolutionary theory suggests that as our human ancestors left the relative safety of the forest canopy to forage for food on open plains of the savannah, the more dangerous plains environment required these early humans to develop advanced skills such as planning, organization, and speech to better protect themselves from the many predators that lived there such as lions and hyenas. Today, the only grass eating monkey known as the geladas, or the bleeding heart monkey, lives in Ethiopia. These monkeys sleep at night on cliffs for protection, but they must descend to the grassy planes to feed during the day. When the grass grows tall, they cannot see each other but noisily chat with each other all day long in the tall grass to check on everyone’s safety. Their chatter reflects the stress of their environment of not knowing when a predator will pounce. People experience anxiety when exposed to dangerous physical situations whether real or perceived. Moreover, personal privacy of our information directly affects anxiety levels. In an article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education titled, “Social Media and Teen Anxiety,” the author Leah Shafer attributes, in part, growing teen anxiety to a breach of privacy when people post things about them on social media without permission and the invasive practice of excessive texting from boyfriends or girlfriends.

People and many animals need privacy to feel safe and sound. Privacy has evolved over many years through more complex dwellings that protect us from unwanted observation or contact. The evolution of the English country house beautifully illustrates the transition from groups living in large open halls to the complex homes of today with many rooms to protect privacy. Anxiety due to a lack of privacy to some degree reflects the real dangers our ancestors faced in a world with predators posing a constant threat in the open planes of the savannah. Today, we can feel the same anxiety in certain dangerous physical situations but more often in social situations from the workplace with constant monitoring of the digital savannah of social media. Stress not only feels terrible but can disturb sleep or focus on tasks at hand. Now more than ever, it is important to be diligent about maintaining your privacy in the Digital Age. You can take steps towards protecting your digital privacy by controlling your locations services settings, being choosy about what photos you post online, and not using the automatic password and credit card filling features. Protecting privacy serves to make our lives safer and healthier.

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Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon here. (Digital format coming soon)

Dr. Timothy Smith