Your sense of privacy evolved over millennia – that puts you at risk today but could improve technology tomorrow

Many people think of privacy as a modern invention, an anomaly made possible by the rise of urbanization. If that were the case, then acquiescing to the current erosion of privacy might not be particularly alarming.

As calls for Congress to protect privacy increase, it’s important to understand its nature. In a policy brief in Science, we and our colleague Jeff Hancock suggest that understanding the nature of privacy calls for a better understanding of its origins.

Research evidence refutes the notion that privacy is a recent invention. While privacy rights or values may be modern notions, examples of privacy norms and privacy-seeking behaviors abound across cultures throughout human history and across geography.

As privacy researchers who study information systems and behavioral research and public policy, we believe that accounting for the potential evolutionary roots of privacy concerns can help explain why people struggle with privacy today. It may also help inform the development of technologies and policies that can better align the digital world with the human sense of privacy.

The misty origins of privacy

Humans have sought and attempted to manage privacy since the dawn of civilization. People from ancient Greece to ancient China were concerned with the boundaries of public and private life. The male head of the household, or pater familias, in ancient Roman families would have his slaves move their cots to some remote corner of the house when he wanted to spend the evening alone.

Attention to privacy is also found in preindustrial societies. For example, the Mehinacu tribe in South America lived in communal accommodations but built private houses miles away for members to achieve some seclusion.

a tile mosaic depicting a nude man and woman holding leaves over their pelvic regions with text in ancient Greek above the figures

According to Genesis in the Bible, Adam and Eve ‘realized they were naked’ and covered themselves.
Cleveland Museum of Art via Wikimedia

Evidence of a drive toward privacy can even be found in the holy texts of ancient monotheistic religions: the Quran’s instructions against spying on one another, the Talmud’s advice not to place windows overlooking neighbors’ windows, and the biblical story of Adam and Eve covering their nakedness after eating the forbidden fruit.

The drive for privacy appears to be simultaneously culturally specific and culturally universal. Norms and behaviors change across peoples and times, but all cultures seem to manifest a drive for it. Scholars in the past century who studied the history of privacy provide an explanation for this: Privacy concerns may have evolutionary roots.

By this account, the need for privacy evolved from physical needs for protection, security and self-interest. The ability to sense the presence of others and choose exposure or seclusion provides an evolutionary advantage: a “sense” of privacy.

Humans’ sense of privacy helps them regulate the boundaries of public and private with efficient, instinctual mastery. You…

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