openDemocracyUK

The 1840s privacy panic - lessons from history

State interception of postal correspondence marks the first major privacy scandal of modernity. The real question, then as now, is how the public reacts - it is this that will determine the future of state surveillance. And the signs don't look promising.

David Vincent
16 October 2013
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Flickr/Justin Henry

In the surveillance of private communication almost everything is history. Edward Snowden’s revelations exposed the obsolescence of current legal safeguards. The key legal safeguards in Britain, the 1994 Intelligence Services Act and the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), have been overtaken new digital systems and software. The late twentieth century is a far away country and the world before the computer beyond sight or meaning.

It may be argued however that the characteristics of the current controversy were established at the beginning of the modern state and mass communication. The second quarter of the nineteenth century saw a revolution in the technology of communication on a scale not seen since the invention of printing. The railways transformed physical transport. The electric telegraph removed time and distance from messaging.  And beginning with Britain’s Penny Post in 1840, the era of what now would now be called social networking was called into being. So efficient was the reformed Post Office that it became possible to engage in epistolary conversations and arrange and conduct meetings within a single day, with negligible difficulty and cost.

Four years after Rowland Hill’s innovation, the Home Office was caught opening letters at the request of a foreign power, unleashing what the Home Secretary’s biographer called a ‘paroxysm of national anger’. The leading Italian republican Giuseppe Mazzini had been chased across Europe by the Austrian Government. Once in London he discovered that his correspondence with radical sympathisers was being intercepted. He caused a complaint to be raised in the House of Commons, unleashing what can now be seen as the first privacy panic. It was the political scandal of the year, arousing passionate debate inside and outside Parliament and stimulating media in interest as far away as New York.

Then as now there was a real abuse at the heart of the panic. The Home Office had indeed been engaging in postal espionage, and a Secret Committee of the House of Commons established that this had been going on without Parliamentary supervision for centuries. There was an identifiable villain at the heart of the controversy. Then as now public concern was generated by the explosive interaction between an increasingly powerful state and the expanding realm of virtual privacy. A communications revolution was generating boundless hopes and bottomless fears about the future conduct of intimate relations. Then as now the government compounded its difficulties by maintaining secrecy about secrecy, inventing the timeless tradition of refusing to confirm or deny any specific accusation of espionage. Instead it resisted legislative intervention, sheltering behind the doctrine of honourable secrecy. Ensuring the event gained maximum exposure, there was a largely free media wired for sensation. The threat to privacy sold newspapers, as it still does.

And then as now there was a means of measuring the impact of the crisis. From 1840 the Post Office began systematically to record and publish the volume of postal flows. Like the web, communication and counting became interdependent activities. Correspondence had always involved a balance of risk. The gain of extending the realm of intimate communication had to be set against the threat of personal secrets being exposed by the letters falling into the wrong hands, whether other friends or family or malign strangers. The question in 1844 was whether the extensive publicity given to the prospect of state surveillance would permanently affect consumer behaviour. In the event nothing happened. There was no short-term drop in correspondence and by 1914 annual postal flows had risen from two hundred million to three and a half billion. However much the Home Secretary had been pilloried, his culture of surveillance had won through.

The same question can be asked of the Snowden crisis. From the perspective of the digital providers, privacy represents an intractable set of difficulties. There is the professional privacy lobby, making a living from a diet of exposure, their table never fuller than at this moment. There are the governmental bureaucracies, hitherto sufficiently fragmented to permit one to be played off against another, but showing disturbing signs of collaborating their efforts. There are the security agencies, demanding back-door access to internet services at the expense of the untrammelled pursuit of profit. And there is the vexed question of the consumer response to privacy crises.  Public opinion surveys are doubly useless. They ask about attitude when the commercial providers want to know about action. They ask about a single objective where the essence of behaviour is balancing one desired outcome, the extension of virtual privacy, against other desired outcomes - most obviously the protection of the personal archive.

In this last matter, the Snowden revelations, however much grief they may seem to be causing companies such as Google or Facebook, constitute action research on a grand scale. So comprehensive and continuing has been the flow of material that substantive insights are available about the nature of privacy and digital communication. If traffic significantly falls, taking down advertising revenue and thus share price, the global corporations will be forced to act. They will have to stand up to the national security agencies to preserve their profits. They will need to promote and implement privacy legislation as the only means of restoring consumer confidence. Conversely if nothing happens, or still more notably, traffic and revenues increase amidst the drama, then a quite different set of lessons will be learned. It will no longer be necessary to fear surveillance revelations or resist the secret demands of the NSA or GCHQ. In this scenario the final outcome of the Snowden event will be an epochal defeat for the privacy lobby.

It is probably too soon to tell. The crisis may have to become part of history to generate its long-term meaning. But the fact that in the three months since the crisis broke, Google’s share price has barely been affected and Facebook’s has doubled, supplies some indication of the likely conclusion.

 

This article is co-published with History and Policy.

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