April 13, 2014

Privacy concerns make a comeback

By STU DENENBERG, Technology and Society

---- — From 1800 to the 1920s, the word “privacy” appeared in publications at a fairly constant but low frequency.

The rate of citation increased somewhat between 1920 and 1960, followed by a very steep rise (except for a mild dip in the early 1980s) through the year 2000.

I gleaned this information using the Google Ngram viewer at: The way it works is explained nicely at:

Basically, the Google search engine explores its book database for any word or phrase you enter, and creates a graph that displays the relative frequency of that word in its huge books database over the time period you choose.

“The word-search database was created by Google Labs, based originally on 5.2 million books, published between 1500 and 2008, containing 500 billion words in American English, British English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, and Chinese,” according to Wikipedia.

For example, language researchers have used Ngram to study trends in “mood” words (like exhilarated/apathetic, cheerful/depressed, etc.) and have evidence that American English has become more emotional in the last 50 years (

If you’d like to play with Ngram, you can also examine how the usage of the words “kindergarten” and “nursery school” were replaced by “child care” over the last half-century, as well as many other examples at

So, other than the Ngram data, what evidence do I have to say privacy is making a comeback? Unfortunately, the other evidence is weak; it’s anecdotal but since it’s based on personal experience, it’s very convincing — to me. 

Based on the reactions of students at SUNY Plattsburgh from the 1990s to pretty much the present, I have observed the issue of privacy wax and wane, but the underlying trend is there has been a growing unconcern amongst our youth about privacy. They are neither happy nor unhappy about the assault on privacy from both the government and the corpocracy; they are merely apathetic.

But, to balance youth’s apathy, I think there’s a growing concern amongst the next generation — the millennials. I see more and more articles and books written by them that decry the loss of privacy, such as Julia Angwin’s book “Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.” (Now there’s a title that almost eliminates the need to read the book.) A short version can be found in the article in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times, March 3, 2014, edition, “Has Privacy Become a Luxury Good?” by Angwin (

She begins the essay with a nice hook, “Last year, I spent more than $2,200 and countless hours trying to protect my privacy.” Angwin goes on to describe how corporations and governments are invading her privacy as well as yours and mine: Google tailors its ads to content of the text in your emails. British Intelligence collected Yahoo video webcam chats of millions of users not even suspected of any illegal activities — unsurprisingly, many were sexually explicit.

Facebook allows/sells marketers access to your status updates unless you take steps to change the default from “Public” to, say, “Friends.” Even seemingly innocuous news websites auction off your personal data before the page loads — the better to target their ads to you, my dear. And, if you’re still not convinced, just type “creepy or useful” into your favorite search engine.

All of this is to say that it does appear that privacy is being taken more seriously by the general public and, no surprise, there is a level of secrecy practiced by those who would exploit our privacy.

What’s the difference between secrecy and privacy? The best example I’ve run across is this: “It’s no secret as to what we do when we go into a bathroom, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want privacy.”

Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at SUNY Plattsburgh, retiring after 30 years there. Before that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Send comments and suggestions to his blog at, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at