Daily Dashboard

How Important Is Privacy Today?

December 17, 2012

By Alan F. Westin

Privacy in 1967: A Third Tier Issue          

When I wrote Privacy and Freedom in the mid-1960s, privacy was essentially a third-tier social, political, and legal issue. Its components were protections against unreasonable search and seizure; rights to remain silent in various forums (the privilege against self-incrimination); rights of confidentiality in various types of record systems (census, social security, medical and personnel records, etc.); conventions about respecting privacy in interpersonal and family relations; and various modesty and reserve rules in dress, speech, sex, etc. At the same time, the U.S. was preeminent among democracies in making government information about individuals a matter of public records access, and in defining the media’s right to investigate and publish personal behaviors in very broad legal terms.

Clearly, privacy was not—in the mid-1960s—on a par with such other societal issues in the U.S. as racial equality; free speech, press and other “freedom” rights; voting and other democratic processes; rights of protest; or questions of free enterprise and government regulation.

Privacy TodayAn Omnipresent Issue

Now privacy has become a central issue and fierce battleground of the technology-driven world we inhabit. To see how profoundly important this has become, we can go to a search engine and see how often privacy is mentioned in published materials of all kinds, including web pages. (I used Google for this search but similar results appear in Bing and AOL.)

For the search, we use English as the retrieval language (that is, we do not click to add any other languages besides English to the search). We also designate the U.S. as the geographic location, by adding “US” to each search term.  

Google’s report of “results” for these values in December 2012 is as follows (in millions):

We start by comparing privacy to the most important societal values in democratic nations.

            Equality .....................................   265M

            Democracy ...............................    431M

            Free enterprise ......................     473M

            Liberty .......................................  706M

            Freedom ..................................  1.490B

A similar spread is present if we track results for current leading policy issues rather than broad social values:

            Taxation .....................................     113M

            Abortion .....................................     251M

            Immigration .............................      539M

            Employment ............................     1.140B

            Healthcare ...............................    2.450B

            Security .....................................   4.270B

We can also look at Google results for basic American constitutional rights:

            Equal protection ........................   57.9M

            Right to counsel .........................  69M

            Freedom of religion ...................  136M

            Constitutional rights ..................  149M

            Due process .................................  258M

            Freedom of speech ......................  391M

            Freedom of the press .................   634M

And how does “Privacy” compare to these three sets of results?

Privacy” produces a staggering 11.930B resultsalmost twelve billion itemsa stunning but trustworthy portrait of just how central privacy has become in the U.S. today.

(Similar patterns and spreads are produced if the search is made at a Global instead of US tag or if the search terms are put in as “liberty issues” or “abortion issues” rather than just the term itself.)

Main Privacy Sectors

A Google search also allows us to see how various types of privacy concerns are ranked today by usage.

            Citizen privacy .................................    292M

            Patient privacy ................................    402M

            Employee privacy ...........................    656M

            Consumer privacy ..........................    802M

            Financial privacy  ...........................  2.220B           

These results directly parallel the findings of public opinion surveys over the past four decades—that national majorities consider financial affairs and consumer transactions as especially sensitive types of personal information.

Rise And Importance of Privacy Policies

Our Google search finds the following results for current policies on key social and political issues:

            Anti-discrimination policies .....................   41M

            Welfare policies .......................................... 210M

            Crime control policies .............................   514M

            Tax policies ................................................  1.34B

            National security policies ........................... 1.41B

Again, “Privacy policies” blow all of these results out of the water—at 10.090 billion results.

In similarly high privacy results, “Internet privacy” produces 3.07 billion results, and “Web Site privacy policy” scores 5.82 billion results.


Institutionalization of Privacy in the Organizational World

The same dynamic of high privacy importance is present if we look at Google search results for “privacy officers.”

In the U.S., “privacy officer” produces 904M search results. If we use “privacy professionals,” we get 732 M results.            

The results are particularly striking when we compare “Chief Privacy Officer” to the other main “chiefs” in the U.S. organizational world 

            Chief Human Resources Officer ...................  132M

            Chief Operating Officer ................................  135M

            Chief Information Officer .............................  146M

            Chief Executive Officer ................................  175M

When we put in Chief Privacy Officer, Google reports 209M results.

(Incidentally, Google lists 79.9 million results for the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), compared to 38.1 million results for the American Civil Liberties Union and 52.7 million results for Consumers Union.)

How Key Internet Players Generate Privacy Coverage

Google also allows us to see how many results connect ‘invasion of privacy” to  major online personal information handlers.

            Invasion of privacy + Microsoft .............................   1M

            Invasion of privacy + Amazon ...............................   2.5M

            Invasion of privacy + Apple ...................................   3M

            Invasion of privacy + America Online ...................   4M

            Invasion of privacy + Yahoo ..................................   8M

            Invasion of privacy + Google .................................  23.9M

            Invasion of privacy + Twitter ................................  44M

            Invasion of privacy + Facebook ............................  65M

So How Important Is Privacy?

Finally, we can use Google searches to see how many results come up when we ask directly how important privacy is, compared to the importance ratings of other fundamental social values.

   Importance of liberty ................................  24M

            Importance of civil liberties .....................  26M

            Importance of equality .............................  28M

            Importance of democracy ......................... 44M

            Importance of freedom ............................  73M

            Importance of human rights .................  101M

Again, discussions of privacy trump all the rest:

            Importance of privacy ............................  248M

What all of these Google searches document is that a true revolution in privacy saliency has taken place – in the U.S. and worldwide -- between 1967 and the present.   In an Internet-driven and mobile-devices world, with consumer profiling, CCTV cameras, and Big Data information systems, everyone may indeed be talking about privacy – even when our society is still struggling to figure out just what to do about it.  

Columbia University Professor Emeritus of Public Law and Government Alan F. Westin is the former publisher of Privacy & American Business and former president of the Center for Social & Legal Research. He is the author or editor of 26 books on constitutional law, civil liberties and civil rights, privacy and American politicsincluding a foundational text for the field of privacy, Privacy and Freedom, in 1967—and has been listed in Who’s Who in America` for three decades.