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Why Privacy Is Our 2013 Word of the Year

Word of the Year, Privacy

From PRISM and the Edward Snowden scandal to the arrival of Google Glass, 2013 was the year that the desire to be seen and heard was turned on its head. Consider the following: In January, the TSA scrapped airport body scanners that produce near-naked images of travelers; In June, Edward Snowden revealed the widespread global-spying program, Project PRISM; In October, Google announced new privacy policy plans that allow the company to incorporate user data into advertisements. The discussion of privacy – what it is and what it isn’t – embodies the preeminent concerns of 2013. For this reason, privacy is Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year.

Privacy is defined as “the state of being free from intrusion or disturbance in one’s private life and affairs.” The distinction between private and public predates the English language. In Ancient Rome, privatus and publicus were juxtaposed terms that distinguished that which belongs to the state (publicus) from that which belongs to the individual (privatus).

Now there are more variables in the equation: corporations collecting user data and millions of individuals with recording devices. Many of us have embraced social media, choosing to volunteer intimate particulars and personal photographs on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; this robust participation echoes an observation by Mark Zuckerberg in 2010 that the public’s comfort level with sharing personal information online is a “social norm” that has “evolved over time.” Even so, a recent survey by Harris Poll shows that young people are now monitoring and changing their privacy settings more than ever, a development that USA Today dubbed the “Edward Snowden effect.” In her eloquent and extensive history of the right to privacy in The New Yorker, Jill Lepore summarized these seemingly at-odds impulses surrounding privacy as “the paradox of an American culture obsessed, at once, with being seen and with being hidden, a world in which the only thing more cherished than privacy is publicity.”

On a global scale, early December saw the release of an open letter, signed by more than 500 world-renowned writers, urging the United Nations to create an international bill of digital rights. They highlighted the individual’s right “to remain unobserved and unmolested” in “thoughts, personal environments, and communications.” One of the signatories, Jeannette Winterson, asserts, “Privacy is an illusion. Do you mind about that? I do.” But the conversation doesn’t stop at the level of the individual; the very companies that the public feels a growing distrust for face their own higher-level privacy battles. Also in December, Apple, Google, Facebook, AOL, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo! signed a petition to the federal government beseeching them to impose limits on the government’s power to collect user data. As Shel Israel lays out in Forbes, in this digital age “trust will become the new currency,” and corporations are acutely aware of this.

As the discussion unfolds, we are scrutinizing what privacy means today, and in so doing, we wonder, does the definition of privacy need another clause? From whose intrusion do we want to be free? The government’s? Foreign governments’? Corporations’? Other individuals’? All of the above? The answer is the missing puzzle piece that we are deciding on together as the wavering definition of privacy solidifies.

What were the major events this year about privacy? Get them in our infographic.

And what was our Word of the Year in 2012? Find out.

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