We live in a time where there is no longer any privacy. Everything is recorded and shared, permanently available to those who pry or, as they may think of it, research.
While AS Byatt wrote this just recently, the debate about privacy is not a new phenomenon. Back in 1825, the theatrical sensation of the year was a comedy entitled Paul Pry which played to packed houses in London, throughout the provinces, and by the following year as far away as New York. The drama became a matter of public debate through its central character’s catchphrase, “I hope I don’t intrude”, which appeared not just in the rhetoric of politicians and commentators, but also printed onto various objects in an early example of merchandising.
In the play, the eponymous hero was constantly prying into the domestic affairs of his neighbours, either by eavesdropping or by intercepting their letters. At every turn he misunderstood the secrets he had acquired, generating an escalating confusion in relations between lovers and between parents and children.
The phrase expressed the increasing ambivalence of popular attitudes towards privacy. It conveyed the new enthusiasm for inquiry, the sense that advances in education and the expansion of the media were creating a new era of transparency and informed debate. The state began to sponsor elementary schools in 1833 and three years later lifted what was described as the “tax on knowledge” – a stamp imposed on newspapers to put them out of reach of working-class readers. In 1840 it sought to widen access to communication by introducing the flat-rate, pre-paid Penny Black stamp, which cost a penny irrespective of distance.
At the same time, there was an anxiety that the realm of private communication was under threat from new forms of surveillance. As the family was increasingly thrust to the foreground as the core of morality and discipline, it seemed that its capacity to keep its own secrets was coming under attack.
Matters came to a head in 1844 when the recently launched satirical magazine, Punch, published a cartoon depicting the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, dressed as Paul Pry, standing in the new Post Office Headquarters eagerly opening the mail that was passing through the system in ever-increasing volumes. The government had been accused of intercepting the correspondence of suspected Italian republicans at the behest of the Austrian government. Coming just four years after the costly decision to democratise the post, it stood charged of exploiting new opportunities for invading the private realm. The Lord Chief Justice depicted the Home Secretary “opening a private letter, becoming the depository of the secrets of a private family … meeting an individual in society and knowing that he was in possession of secrets dearer to him than his life.”
The Home Secretary’s career never recovered from the controversy. The event, wrote his biographer was:
like a match struck for a moment amid profound darkness, revealing to the startled crowd vague forms of terror, of which they had never previously had a glimpse … and about which they forthwith began to talk at random, until a gigantic system of espionage had been conjured up which no mere general assurance of its unreality could dispel.
The affair marked the beginning of the inclination to cast the privacy debate in magnified terms: from a handful of Italian exiles to all those who sent a letter. The postal network exposed the privacy of every citizen, and surveillance embraced not just their political views, but every aspect of their domestic lives committed to paper.
Adding a very modern twist was the government’s refusal to confirm or deny the charge made against it, inventing the doctrine – which has been followed in the centuries up to Edward Snowden’s revelations – of refusing to comment on its use of surveillance technologies. This had the advantage of keeping the press and readers at bay, leaving successive governments free to extend their operations in response to unforeseeable threats to the security of the state. On the other hand, it prevented the government from denying what it had not done, leaving the field open to conspiracy theorists.
Today, despite belated attempts to enshrine the powers of the security services in law through the Investigatory Powers Bill, the structures of surveillance remain wilfully opaque. David Anderson QC, reviewer of the government’s counter-terrorism legislation, wrote that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is “obscure since its inception, has been patched up so many times as to make it incomprehensible to all but a tiny band of initiates”. The current draft of the Investigatory Powers Bill claims to initiate a new regime of clarity, yet ensures that that the grounds for steaming open electronic letters are written in terms that allow the broadest interpretation.
For 19th century families, as for those of today, maintaining control over personal communication was a matter of constant adjustment and compromise, of small victories and passing defeats. But today, privacy has become a controversy played out in public – fuelled by revolutions in our means of communication, and conditioned by governments forever inclined to keep secrecy secret.