Google's chief internet evangelist, Vint Cerf, suggests that privacy is a fairly new development that may not be sustainable. "Privacy may actually be an anomaly," Cerf said at an FTC event yesterday while taking questions. Elaborating, he explained that privacy wasn't even guaranteed a few decades ago: he used to live in a small town without home phones where the postmaster saw who everyone was getting mail from. "In a town of 3,000 people there is no privacy. Everybody knows what everybody is doing."

"It will be increasingly difficult for us to achieve privacy."

Rather than privacy being an inherent part of society that's been stripped away by new technology, Cerf says that technology actually created it in the first place. "It’s the industrial revolution and the growth of urban concentrations that led to a sense of anonymity," Cerf said. Cerf warned that he was simplifying his views — "I don't want you to go away thinking I am that shallow about it" — but overall, he believes "it will be increasingly difficult for us to achieve privacy."

Though Cerf's comments may echo concerns over NSA surveillance, he appears to be interested primarily in privacy as it relates to social networks like Facebook. "Our social behavior is also quite damaging with regard to privacy," Cerf says. He gives an example how a person could be exposed doing something that they wanted to keep secret by being tagged in the background of a stranger's photo — a photo they never expected to be caught in. "The technology that we use today has far outraced our social intuition, our headlights. ... [There's a] need to develop social conventions that are more respectful of people’s privacy."

"We are gonna live through situations where some people get embarrassed, some people end up going to jail, some other people have other problems as a consequence of some of these experiences," Cerf said. More respectful privacy conventions will likely develop as we move forward, he says, but for now, "This is something we're gonna have to live through. I don't think it’s easy to dictate this."