The internet was set abuzz yesterday as Michael Moynihan of the Daily Beast posted an Instagram shot of a 1970 Newsweek magazine cover (back in the days when it was still a print magazine) published under the ominous headline: “Is Privacy Dead?”
In the era of the NSA mass-ingesting all the data that’s fit to send, 1970 almost seems like a golden, innocent age, before the internet, before cell phones, but the illustration is a good time-capsule look back into what appears to be a time-honored national discomfort with the same technologies we eagerly adopt.
To list the players, moving clockwise from the top, we find:
- Uncle Sam towering over all
- a microscope trained in
- a telephone with pad and pencil, taking notes
- a computer punch-card
- a telephone cord*
- a portable (film) camera
- two media microphones
- a telescope
- a reel of computer tape
- the anthropomorphized computer itself
- all crowding around a couple, a woman in an orange top and skirt sheltered by a protective man in a business suit, as they both huddle under the spotlight of all the observational attention.
It’s a picture rich in historical detail, but the most striking contrast with today is how physical, and targeted, the privacy endangerment is. The couple is literally under the microscope, in front of the camera, and under the watchful eyes of the government. The computer is digital, literally speaking, but requires instructions and programs to be physically inserted via a punchcard in order to run.
In 1970, the very fact that the NSA existed at all was secret, leading to its nickname, “No Such Agency.” Today, we know the agency’s name, but little more about its operations. Who we are is less important to it than the fact that we are all included in its data stores, and the fact that a wristwatch today may have more computing power than the hulking beast depicted above is but a small indication of just how much privacy we may have surrendered in the interim.
The 1970s that followed this cover saw a pretty successful pushback against the government’s ability to surveil its own citizens. Time will tell if we can do the same.
*Commenter eVade indicates this is in fact a microphone for a personal dictation machine from the period