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We’ve Stopped Talking And Searching About Privacy

April 15, 2019

Kalev Leetaru
Contributor
AI & Big Data
I write about the broad intersection of data and society.

After a year of nearly continuous privacy revelations involving Facebook and, in an era when breaches and privacy failures have become so commonplace they no longer even attract much in the way of headlines, have we as a society simply given up on the quaint historical notion of privacy?

Historically, mentions of the word “privacy” in English language books published 1800-2000 seem to have taken off in the late 1960’s, coinciding with a near-vertical increase in mentions of “data” and “computer.” It seems from the very beginning, our societal discussion of privacy was tightly linked to the rise of the computing era.
In fact, the US Government’s Privacy Act of 1974 was motivated in part by the “potential abuses presented by the government’s increasing use of computers to store and retrieve personal data by means of a universal identifier.”

Looking to American television news over the past decade as monitored by the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive via the GDELT Project, the timeline below shows the percentage of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News’ combined airtime June 2009 to April 2019 that mentioned privacy.
It seems the impact of Edward Snowden’s disclosures in June 2013 was short lived at best. Over the past decade there has been no appreciable long-term increase in coverage mentioning “privacy.” In fact, overall there has been a slight decrease. Even BBC News London shows no increase since the Archive began monitoring it in January 2017, suggesting Europe’s greater focus on privacy has not translated into greater media coverage of the term.

Looking to worldwide online news coverage in the 65 languages monitored by GDELT since January 2017, the impact of the Cambridge Analytica scandal can be seen more clearly.It seems the impact of Edward Snowden’s disclosures in June 2013 was short lived at best. Over the past decade there has been no appreciable long-term increase in coverage mentioning “privacy.” In fact, overall there has been a slight decrease. Even BBC News London shows no increase since the Archive began monitoring it in January 2017, suggesting Europe’s greater focus on privacy has not translated into greater media coverage of the term.

Looking to worldwide online news coverage in the 65 languages monitored by GDELT since January 2017, the impact of the Cambridge Analytica scandal can be seen more clearly.
Global coverage has nearly doubled in the year since, but has remained stable, with no substantial increase even as Facebook has racked up privacy issue after privacy issue and as the steady drumbeat of global data breaches has accelerated.

Worldwide web searches via Google Trends 2004-2019 using Google’s “Privacy” Topic (which includes its translations into languages across the world) shows that we used to search a lot more about privacy in 2004. Something changed between 2004 and 2007, as we searched less and less about it. From 2007-2019, we see to care little about privacy.
We do seem to care more about privacy-related news, however. Looking at worldwide Google News searches 2008-2019 about Privacy, we see that 2009 marked the rise of news-related interest in privacy, but that overall news searches about privacy have remained relatively stable. Facebook’s privacy shift in May 2010 caused a brief spike in searches, as did the Obama White House’s proposed “Privacy Bill of Rights” in February 2012. Yet, other than these two brief blips, there seems to have been waning interest until last year’s Cambridge Analytica story. Yet, even a year of Facebook privacy stories seems to have increased interest only slightly.
Of course, the concept of privacy can be expressed in myriad ways and searches for stories like Cambridge Analytica are implicitly searches about digital privacy. It could certainly be the case that we still care about privacy, but simply search about it using different terminology or more tactically, researching specific privacy-related stories we believe have the greatest impact on ourselves, rather than researching privacy as a whole.

Regardless, it is intriguing that at least the literal term “privacy” is fading overall from both media coverage and search interest.

Putting this all together, perhaps the greatest contribution of the digital world has been not the introduction of global access to information, but rather the completion of the great governmental dream of eliminating privacy once and for all. It seems Orwell’s 1984 was just a few decades too early.

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