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Privacy Perspectives | From ancient to modern: The changing face of personal data Related reading: On the 'structural shortcomings' of the GDPR

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In the ancient world, keeping personal data was the privilege of the elites within society.

The purpose of storing personal data in this context was mainly to preserve and provide evidence of lineage in order to maintain a position of power or prestige. Personal data of the masses was predominantly captured through storytelling (oral traditions) and other forms of human expression such as song and dance.

The purpose for transmission of personal data among indigenous peoples appears to be driven more by a need to provide lessons to younger generations and as a means of entertainment. Some ancient societies developed at a much faster pace than others and began to use more advanced methods for record-keeping. Typically, the sharing of personal data would have been confined to the immediate group, tribe or community and may or may not become widely disseminated depending on whether it was deliberately spread orally outside of that community or captured using the earliest forms of writing technologies inscribed using material such as cuneiforms, hieroglyphs and scrolls.

Personal data on an individual in the ancient world would likely be found on a tombstone where pictorial evidence of the life and activity of the individual would be engraved as seen with the ancient Sumerians. The ancient Greeks introduced systems for taxation that would have added to the need for personal data to be collected. Yet, personal data would have been narrowly defined, and the capture of it would not have been in many different forms.

However, as writing technologies advanced and societies became more complex, there was the broadening of the definition and capture of personal data.

Information on individuals that may have been confined to a small geographic area or community began to be more accessible as a result of the advent of letter-writing, postcards and diaries. Additionally, the established churches of some societies created and maintained "population records," namely, baptisms, marriages and burials.

With advances in medicine, law and education, the capture and collection of personal data expanded.

One of the most significant events that resulted in the capture of personal data in the written word was records created as a result of war. Recruitment, conscription or drafting of individuals to serve in war time required the vast collection of personal data. Ultimately, the expansion of government impacted on the collection of the personal data of individuals. Governments as well as private entities actively collect vast amounts of personal data that serve to protect rights of citizens, enable the provision of services and for commerce.

By the 20th century, personal data colonised many different types of records including those related to healthcare, land ownership, legal cases, personal identification, insurance, education, and trade. Another major phenomenon in the modern world that has led to the collection and maintenance of large amount of personal data is travel by land, air and sea. The modern purpose of the collection of personal data has now expanded to surveillance of individuals for the protection of national security.

Finally, in the 21st century, there has been a major shift in the media and entertainment industry which has led to more intense scrutiny of individual people, particularly celebrities. This has resulted in even further collection and use of personal data

The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) broadly defines "personal data" as "any information related to an identified or identifiable person." This includes, but is not restricted to, data such as a person’s full name, address, occupation, affiliations, physical and mental health, sexual orientation, and even his or her opinions. From the mid-1970s, the OECD sought to provide guidelines to its Member States on respecting privacy as a right. These guidelines have influenced definitions on personal data in legislation in many jurisdictions around the globe.

However, the definition of personal data in the 21st century is a ‘moving target’ due to the new dimensions added by advanced information communication technologies including intrusive devices, use of biometrics, social media, powerful search engines and maintenance of transnational databases. The European Union in its General Data Protection Regulation has responded to these rapid technological developments by seeking to protect personal data of "natural" persons processed by "automated means" including online identifiers such as Internet Protocol addresses and cookie identifiers that "create profiles on individuals and identify them."

As the technology becomes more enabling and information becomes more widely accessible, the definition of personal data and the intent behind the collection of that data will continue to evolve in the digital world.

photo credit: Σταύρος My photo is in Wikipedia...:) (ديرالبحري) via photopin (license)

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