Privacy’s Evolutionary Roots May Help Shape Its Future in the Digital Age

In a Policy Forum, Alessandro Acquisti and colleagues argue that the evolutionary roots of human privacy could teach a lesson about modern privacy and how to manage it in the digital age. “The reason why concerns over privacy endure, despite privacy being repeatedly declared dead, may be in part cultural and in part related to visceral, evolutionary roots,” write Acquisti et al. “Understanding and then accounting for those ancestral roots of privacy may be critical to secure its future.” Given current digital technologies and the rapid rise of concerns surrounding digital privacy and its invasions, often expressed in terms of data rights and surveillance, it’s arguably easy to construe privacy and the need for privacy protection as a modern phenomenon. However, a wealth of historical, anthropological and sociological research shows that this is simply not the case. Instead, privacy and our need for it have remained constant throughout human history.

Humans likely evolved their sense of privacy based on knowledge about their physical surroundings, such as detecting the presence of others. Even today, being alone is generally how the boundaries between public and private are defined. When it comes to digital privacy, these cues become irrelevant, disrupting an individual’s regulation of privacy because the physical cues are absent or easily manipulated, which may help explain the challenges in protecting digital privacy and the seemingly careless online behaviors of those who claim to care about their privacy. According to the authors, digital privacy policies based on control over data and user consent are bound to fail because they place the burden and responsibility of privacy protection on the individual. Acquisti et al. suggest that one solution is to use technologies that embed privacy-by-default into systems; however, they note that many in the industry may have little incentive to do so. Because of this, the likely only option for meaningful privacy management is informed policy intervention.

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