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Word of the Week: ‘privacy’


We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘privacy’.

This week’s word of the week is… ‘privacy’. Cue a series of references to George Orwell’s 1984. Only joking, we’re more original than that. 

So why is ‘privacy’ trending? The Financial Times has revealed facial recognition technology is being used at an area close to Kings Cross train station. According to the owner of the site, it’s all “in the interests of public safety”, though little more detail as to how the software is being used, has been provided.

Questions about the legality of its use have been raised, and the human rights group Liberty has described the technology as a “disturbing expansion of mass surveillance”.

This news comes shortly after a London pub announced it’s using the same facial recognition technology to solve the age-old conundrum of which punter to serve next (usually just not the one waving a tenner in your face, surely?) – and Facebook admitted they’ve been listening to recordings of users without their knowledge.

Scared yet? 

What does ‘privacy’ mean?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the noun ‘privacy’ as: “someone’s right to keep their personal matters and relationships secret” and “the state of being alone”.

The Urban Dictionary has a slightly more provocative take on the word, with one entry describing ‘privacy’ as “a thing that doesn’t exist anymore”.

Synonyms include: ‘seclusion’, ‘isolation’ and ‘solitude’ as well as simply, ‘one’s space’.

The concept of ‘privacy’ has its roots in philosophical discussion – the most famous being Aristotle’s distinction between the public sphere and the private sphere.

It was something that was deemed very important in ancient Greek society, so much so that they used their sophisticated knowledge of geometry to build housing that was so mathematically precise it ensured minimum exposure to public view. 

The word itself derives from the Old French ‘privauté’. The meaning of ‘privacy’ evolved into “a private matter or secret” by the 1600s but didn’t take on the more modern meaning of “a state of freedom from intrusion” until 1814.

In 1890, American jurors Samuel D. Warren and Louis Brandeis, credited for “adding a chapter to the law”, wrote a landmark article titled ‘The Right to Privacy’. Its main message? Citizens deserved the right to be “let alone”. A memo mums, Cambridge Analytica and the makers of Big Brother just did not get.

Swap in your privacy for a pint

So, where does that leave us now, is ‘privacy’ a thing of the past? A throwback to simpler times?

Perhaps it’s not all bad, this Speakster has never experienced the joy of buying a pint in central London without having to fight, kick or bite her way to the front of the queue.

Roisin McCormack