Calculated Communication

Every evolution of communications technology from the printing press to the telegraph to telephones and eventually the internet has placed new and different stresses on personal privacy. As much as we welcome these technologies when launched, in time we realise the effect that they can have on personal privacy. The whole point of communicating is to violate your privacy in a controlled way. But if we do not have information about all the ways in which a given communication can affect your privacy you cannot really exercise effective control over it.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

One of the earliest judgments that looked into whether or not there was such a thing as privacy in private correspondence, involved, on the one hand, two of the greatest literary giants of the time, and, on the other, an early inventor of the trashy novel. The case was the final denouement in a long-standing feud between writers, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, and publisher, Edmund Curll.

There aren’t enough inches in this column to detail, in all their gory details, the events leading to the final showdown in court. Suffice to say that after a series of increasingly vicious attacks on each other, Edmund Curll got his hands on over 20 years of private correspondence between the two famed writers and published it for all to read.

Never before had a court been called upon to decide on the privacy implications of a new technology. That said, never before had a technology made such radical improvements on the existing state of communications. Thanks to printing technology, what previously took months to manually transcribe now rolled off the presses in a matter of hours. As much as this resulted in the widespread dissemination of information, it also made it possible for unscrupulous persons, of the likes of Edmund Curll, to print hundreds of copies of salacious gossip and get it into the hands of the general populace with little to no effort.

Technology constantly improves the way in which ideas are communicated - the speed with which they are created, the distances they travel and the audiences they reach. As much as each of these advances have improved the overall quality of knowledge in society, every iteration has resulted in progressively greater incursions into our personal privacy.

The Postal Service

The postal system allowed messages to be sent further afield that was previously possible. But even though this allowed people separated by great distances to stay in touch, it increased the likelihood that what they said to each other would fall into the hands of strangers along the way. So serious was this concern that Thomas Jefferson blamed the ‘infidelities of the post office and the circumstances of the times"‘ for his disinclination to write freely.

The US Congress eventually enacted a law that in 1825 that made it a crime to open a letter entrusted to the postal department before it was delivered to the person for whom it was intended. Most other countries followed suit.

Telegraph Operators

The telegraph, the next improvement on communication technology, placed even greater stress on privacy. In order to send messages over the wires, telegraph companies had to employ operators to transcribe message from Morse Code to English.

As a result, even though the telegraph ensured that messages reached their intended recipients faster, the technology required someone to read the message and then share it onwards. This technology design introduced novel constraints on what could be included in a message forcing users to develop intricate codes to disguise the true meaning of what they intended to communicate.


Next came telephones, a technology that made it possible for people to directly speak with each other over long distances. In the very early days entire neighbourhoods had to be connected using a single “party line” that was used, simultaneously, by a number of families.

While your telephone only rang when you were getting a call, it was entirely possible for you to pick up the phone and listen in on someone else having a conversation on the line. Even after individual homes were directly connected to each other with exclusive telephone lines, calls still had to be put through by switchboard operators who could (and did) regularly listen in.

Improvements in Technology

Each time a new technology is introduced into society, the novel features it has to offer are welcomed with enthusiasm. Thanks to this initial euphoria, it takes time for the effect that this technology will have on personal privacy to be felt.

But every technology inevitably faces societal backlash which usually from the upper sections of society who often have the most to lose when their privacy is infringed. But then, with the passage of more time, society learns to adapt, adjusting the very manner in which they communicate to account for the constraints of the new technology.

We are currently in the midst of the latest evolution in communications technology. The mobile internet has upended the way we interact and, for most of us, the initial euphoria has begun to wear thin. Since the internet never forgets, tools like newsfeeds, search and algorithmic amplification surface information that most of us would rather had remained buried. Things said over a decade ago in an entirely different context, can cause all sorts of embarrassment when dredged up today.

Statistical not Absolute

In a recent newsletter, Byrne Hobart pointed out that privacy in online communication can never be absolute. The reason we find it hard to safeguard our privacy, he argues, is “because the whole point of communicating is to violate your own privacy in a controlled way”.

No matter how carefully we think about what we are posting before we hit send, since we are susceptible to the very human failing of statistical bias, chances are that sooner or later, our assessment of will be wrong. Which means that we need to view the very act of engaging in online communication as a risk management exercise that requires us to balance the benefit we hope to gain from engaging with the risk we could be exposed to as a result of posting.

This realisation has already altered the way that many of us communicate online, forcing us to be more circumspect with the messages we post and how we engage online. The vast majority of online users remain unaware of the consequences of their action - and therefore, caught unawares whenever an innocuous, off-handed remark sparks an uncontrollable conflagration of public response.