On the historic context of institutionalized gathering of personal data

Tom O’Doherty:

As Dediu acknowledges, this in itself is not a new insight — there has been plenty of coverage of privacy controversies at Facebook, Google and other companies. What was interesting, however, was that he linked this to a larger historical context, referring to the process of institutions (state and private) gathering information about individuals over the last few centuries. This reminded me of an interview that Cabinet Magazine conducted with Valentin Groebner in 2006, about the medieval and pre-modern tracking of individuals.

Groebner,? Professor of History at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland, is the author of Who Are You?: Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe, and his interview with David Serlin talks about the history of passports, in the context of larger historical surrenderings of privacy in the last two hundred years.

It is possible that the current wave of institutional data-hoarding may in effect be the last. The companies who are leading it are far more efficient than previous authorities — historically, state and church authorities. They are taking the data from people who are apparently far more willing to give it than in previous eras. And they are going to be able to analyse and process personal data far more finely than anyone else ever has. This is not really an alarmist conclusion — although the situation itself is alarming — but simply an acknowledgement of existing reality. Dediu’s comment that “this will become a political question” and that “these things are doomsday issues for some” is interesting in the context of the recent successes of the privacy-advocating Piratenpartei (Pirate Party) in the 2011 Berlin state elections.