Data Privacy Through the Years: When Did the Internet Start Collecting Our Data?

data privacy

Data, algorithms, and cookies aren’t recently invented words. People have been using them ever since the internet was born. But did these popular tech terms become what we know of them today?

The answers are surprisingly found deep within our history books. After all, the current laws regarding data privacy are all based on ancient privacy laws. They have evolved over time to accommodate advancing technology. For instance, today, we have the General Data Protection Regulation law, or GDPR for short. It was specifically made to protect internet users who provide their personal data to the websites and apps they use. Thanks to that, websites and apps always ask for our consent before collecting our data.

That said, let’s take a quick trip through the origins of data privacy:

1890: Right to Privacy Law

In 1890, a Right to Privacy Law review article was published in Harvard Law Review. It would become one of the most influential essays in American legal history. It was also the first publication that argued people’s right to privacy, which at that time meant that people could refuse to be photographed or covered in newspaper articles.

Today, we still exercise the same rights. Media outlets need your consent before publishing content that involves you. However, there are loopholes, such as gossip outlets being allowed to use celebrities for clout. But that’s because the paparazzi are allowed to photograph people when they are out in public. What they can’t do is take photos and videos of people inside their abodes or any other private property.

1917: Protection of Sealed Mail

Have you ever wondered why your parents forbade you from opening the mail unless it was for you? That’s because opening sealed mail addressed for someone else is illegal. This rule was initiated in 1917 when Solicitor General Judge William Lamar argued that opening sealed mail violated privacy.

Today, our email messages are also entitled to protection from prying eyes. Email messages are encrypted, especially if they contain sensitive or confidential information. Encryption prevents unauthorized users from intercepting the correspondence and accessing the message. It also protects your login credentials from hackers.

data encryption

1948: “1984” by George Orwell Was Published

People who have read this sci-fi/dystopia novel said that the plot was terrifyingly similar to our current political situation. This book contained themes of censorship and surveillance, with the fictional society having no privacy. It resembles our situation today because everything we see on the internet is intentionally shown to us. It’s because of the data we willingly provide that targeted ads reach our social media feeds. George Orwell seemed to have foreseen this reality, making 1984 a bestseller until today.

1960: Privacy Torts

Legal scholar William L. Prosser named the four torts which we could use as a basis for suing someone who violated our privacy. The torts, listed below, still apply today:

  • Intrusion into one’s private affairs
  • Public disclosure of confidential and embarrassing facts about oneself
  • Causing negative publicity to someone
  • Appropriating one’s name or likeness

Cyber defamation law, or cyber libel, is a product of these privacy torts. Today, you can sue someone for posting malicious remarks about you on social media. Businesses can also press charges against a customer or competitor who defamed them. Other laws against cybercrime, like spreading private photos and videos online, are also born out of these 1960 privacy torts.

2010: Red Flags Rule

Fast forward to 2010, when social media became widely used, the Red Flags Rule was created. It protected internet users from identity theft. Indeed, having a MySpace account back then left us vulnerable to catfishers and other posers. As such, we have been allowed to put identity thieves behind bars.

The 2010s to Present: Terms and Conditions and the GDPR

With privacy laws ensuring our protection, we can now use the internet and other online services more confidently. If we made an account on a particular website or software, like Google Drive, we’d also be given a Terms and Conditions form to read. We usually skip reading this form because it’s too long. But it’s crucial to read them thoroughly. They state why and how they collect our data and what they do with them. Some people who have read the terms and conditions may find something dodgy in it, but rest assured that they’re all within the law’s boundaries. A software as a service or SaaS legal agreement defines every term clearly and explains why your data is safe in the software.

Besides, the GDPR will charge hefty fines to websites and apps that misuse data and compromise its privacy. Users have nothing to fear.

Conspiracy theories may claim that our phones and computers can hear us all the time, but that’s all they are: theories, and therefore unproven. What’s certain is that your data is safe, and the law will not allow it to be stolen.

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