Privacy in the Digital Age

The contest between individual privacy and government authority has been part of the American experience since its earliest days as a nation. Debate over the quartering of British troops in American homes and general writs of investigation by the Crown spawned two of the first ten Amendments to the Constitution. Over the last 235 years, innovations like telephones, automobiles, email and airplanes have shifted the landscape — but not importance — of the privacy debate.

How has privacy changed in the Digital Age? What sort of laws apply? How do they affect us? Politics & Policy became interested in these questions following recent developments regarding government search and seizure of laptops and emails. We wanted to learn how technological and legal changes have shaped Americans’ privacy.

The interactive timeline shows an overview of the last half decade of American electronic privacy and includes events that have affected the delicate balance between personal privacy and government authority. Events, which include federal laws, court cases, executive orders and major technological developments, are plotted according to (1) whether it shifted the balance toward privacy or state authority and (2) whether this shift was of major or minor magnitude. For information, readers can roll their cursor over each event.

The trend line running across the chart illustrates that the balance between privacy and state authority generally moved in favor of privacy until 2001. Beginning with a major shift towards state authority in reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, there has been a trend towards fewer protections of privacy. Unlike the previous 40 years, many of these events have been laws rather than judicial decisions.

As technology has evolved, Americans have trusted third parties with more and more of their personal data. From electronic billing and e-commuting to simply using a cellphone, current privacy laws will continue to be strained by advances in technology. Technological change and the War on Terror will continue to raise questions like the Border Search Exception and Cellphone Tracking, which will test our collective social and legal notions of privacy. The question of privacy is more important to our generation than perhaps any other. Politics & Policy hopes that this information stirs debate and discussion about what level of privacy Americans can expect in an age of terrorism and technology.


Production by Rhaina Cohen and Tyler Fisher / North by Northwestern.