One of the world’s most popular tabloids is shutting down in the wake of a privacy violation scandal. The British newspaper News of the World, normally trading in sensational headlines and celebrity gossip, has come under fire for allegations that employees illegally recorded personal calls of not only movie stars, including Hugh Grant, and politicians but also ordinary citizens, including London bombing victims and a missing teenage girl.

The story has outraged Britain and drawn condemnation from the Prime Minister. While investigations continue and heads roll, many are discussing what privacy means in the modern era.

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The concept of personal privacy is a relatively new idea; until only about 200 years ago, most people lived and slept right next to each other (first with families, later with spouses and children) and had very little privacy for much of their lives. For many, personal space was like personal property: difficult to acquire and hard to keep. People in large families or orphanages might rarely have time alone other than when at the toilet, and everyone knew everyone’s business more or less by default.


John Locke, in his book Eavesdropping: An Intimate History (2010, Oxford University Press), notes that “People spent many centuries living in homes before they got the idea or motivation to create private areas within homes… Privacy was becoming a value, but there was something else. People were beginning to think of themselves as individuals, as people who differed in important ways from all others, and they sought spaces that would reinforce those differences.”

Privacy is more valued than ever, yet today many people willingly give up much of their privacy to participate in social networking sites. There are well over half a billion Facebook users, many of whom happily share personal information and photos with people they’ve never met. In an interesting blend of exposure and privacy, tens of thousands of men and women post naked (yet anonymous) photos of themselves online for the world to see — as I accidentally discovered while doing a Google image search for the word “amateur.”

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The kernel of the privacy issue is, of course, consent. News of the World apparently hacked into phone messages of murder victims and possibly those of relatives of slain British soldiers and others. Those who choose to share their private thoughts and photos with the world through Facebook, Twitter and blogs can, to some degree, choose what information is seen by whom. Those whose private information was stolen by News of the World have no control over who sees it.

Technology makes privacy more difficult than ever. We trust that third-party companies conveying our private letters, texts and phone messages will keep them private. The risk of privacy violation is the price we pay for the convenience of cheap, instant communication, and scandals like this will not go away.

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