Not too long ago, archivists rarely considered the issue of privacy, except in the circumstances of donor restrictions imposed upon or negotiated with the archivist or the discovery by the archivist of particularly sensitive material in a collection. However, today, privacy is one of the most complicated professional issues being faced by archivists. James B. Rule, Privacy in Peril (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) provides a good explanation why privacy would be a challenge for archivists. Examining the implications of technology, the role of government, and the activities of private institutions, Rule depicts how privacy has expanded beyond any sense of limits – except whatever we (society) might care to establish. Comparing what is going on in the United States with other nations (Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and Australia), Rule suggests that the way America manages privacy is poorer than just about any democratic state. Rule asserts, “Today in America, virtually any publicly recorded personal data are subject to sale, for almost any commercial purpose – as are many data intended to be anything but public” (p. 113). Obviously, if this is the situation, and Rule makes a good case that this is an accurate assessment, than archivists and other records professionals can expect to face an increasing array of problems.
Not surprisingly, technology plays a role in all this. Rule argues that before new information technologies, there was little need to distinguish between public and private information: “Before the rise of special technologies for preserving the unfolding daily ‘record’ of human affairs, personal information generated in public normally had a short half-life, passing unnoticed in the first place, or quickly forgotten. Rather, special steps from diaries, to social scientists’ field notes, to the archives of the daily press, were necessary to preserve it” (p. 8). Concerns about personal privacy have increased because of the growth in the “sheer amount of personal documentation accumulated on Americans. They have also grown through the linkage [most often enabled because of the new information technologies] of crucial intakes of personal information with situations and relationships that most people cannot afford to do without” (pp. 86-87). Rule examines the growth of recordkeeping legislation in the United States, including the establishment of birth and death registers, the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security system, passports, and so forth. Rule also considers how the notion of fourth amendment protection (the main Constitutional element most frequently used in promoting personal privacy) really often only does apply to personal papers in homes, although the growth of Web sites, text messaging, and the use of cell phones has generated new concerns and debates about how the fourth amendment ought to be interpreted and applied.
As one might imagine, there is a lot in this book about the nature of records and recordkeeping. We learn about the increasing government recordkeeping involving the collection of information about citizens. We learn about how citizens have grown to rely on government and other institutions (notably financial ones) keeping records about them and their activities. We also see how legislation began to emerge to ensure privacy protection, with these laws detailing the nature of government and other institutional recordkeeping. As Rule concludes, “The history of privacy over the last four decades consists of one collision after another between privacy-oriented efforts to compartmentalize personal data and gathering pressures to share such data directly among interested parties – without consent or even knowledge of the persons concerned” (p. 36). Archivists will find themselves increasingly in such collisions.
One of the most important themes evident in Privacy in Peril is that the newer problems relating to privacy are not merely the result of technologies, such as the Internet. Rule writes, the “issues involved are ultimately ethical and political, not technological” (p. 200). In other words, we, as individuals and as a society, repeatedly make choices that indicate that we do not really care much about personal privacy. Archivists cannot afford to operate in such a lackadaisical manner.