In an 1981 interview with Steve Jobs, he says the following:

There is a common conception that people have of computers which is more along the lines of "1984"; very large, very centralized computers. And I know the privacy issue is very very hot in the media these days."

What specifically was he referring to about privacy? It sounds like he had something particular in mind. But he doesn't really elaborate, and the interviewer doesn't probe any further (which might be a tacit acknowledgement that Jobs' perception about it being "hot" was accurate?)

Its easy for us today (2021) to recognize many computer/web privacy issues. Projecting that backwards seems tempting but back in an era when most things people would encounter were pre-digital its not clear to me what the concern was (not to say it was invalid). I think some subset of financial and government records that would affect 'normal' people would have been computerized at that time, but probably not very much else?

The date of the interview is said to be 2/18/1981, though I don't know when it would have actually aired. Presumably he is referring to something that occurred around then?

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(video link at about the time where he makes that statement - time 10:14 in the actual video, but timecode 19:30:58 is shown onscreen)

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    I think you answered your own question: financial and government records. The difference between finding out about someone in a matter of hours, versus a matter of weeks, is not merely a matter of speed. It makes data correlation possible that was not possible before. It's not some particular aspect of privacy; it is the issue of privacy as an eroding concept.
    – dave
    May 21, 2021 at 0:38
  • @another-dave well, but he seemed to be referring to some specific topical news story, not just a generalized impression or fear of computers diminishing privacy. I don't disagree with your point, but I don't think that's the answer based on how he worded his statement. May 21, 2021 at 0:42
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    Having played that section of the video, I disagree. The phrase "the privacy issue" means that privacy as a thing in itself is of concern. It was something in the air. For a topical US equivalent, "the issue of partisan politics" is very very hot in the media these days. It's not one specific thing. People are concerned; the media write about things that concern people.
    – dave
    May 21, 2021 at 0:57
  • @another-dave well you could be right, I just didn't think that "very very hot" would not refer to something in particular. May 21, 2021 at 1:06
  • I've watched other documentaries from the time, and it does seem that there was a real concern about privacy issues then. Not as computer users as we think of today, but worries of common people about the databases of information that large organizations were gathering about them on computers.
    – Troff
    May 21, 2021 at 17:31

2 Answers 2


Personal privacy, in general, was a major issue in the 70s in America, maybe more so than today even. In the previous decade there had been scandals with illegal wiretaps by the US government and major legal cases expanding and engaging with the constitutional right to privacy. The first US federal laws on privacy were passed in the mid-1970s. In the previous decade, there had been major works in the arts with such themes -- from THX 1138 to A Scanner Darkly.

After several decades with social rebels and amateur hackers having had access to personal computers -- perhaps not far off what Jobs was envisioning when he spoke at times -- we have perhaps forgotten that computers originated in large part from the military-industrial complex.

They were originally the domain of large corporations and governments. Administering tax records and designing nuclear bombs. Computers were for and by "the Man". Throughout the 70s they were increasingly used to track and model people's commerce and behaviour. See Ted Nelson's 1974 book Computer Lib for a look into the countercultural mindset towards computers at the time.

Around 1981, one of the buzzwords in the industry was "database". Not the software per se, but the data contained in them. Online computer records. Mainframes were fast enough and had enough storage, to have a record on every citizen in the country. And all this information, usually held by governments and large corporations, was potentially instantly accessible anywhere in the world by computer network. I'm sure the more prophetic even imagined a computer on the end of illegal wiretaps, logging everything a person said.

Sound familiar? I suspect he was talking about the same things we talk about today with privacy and computers now, basically. It's an old conversation at this point.


Steve Jobs was probably referring to the abortion issue, which was framed by SCOTUS as a Privacy issue, and was a rapidly growing source of division in American politics in the early-1980s.

The SCOTUS decision on Roe v. Wade occurred in 1973. As a constitutional question, the Justices took up the right to privacy as the central argument in their decision. At that time, additional questions around the issue from both sides of the debate were less "well argued" than they are today. Therefore, it was still largely a question, both legally and in the public's mind, regarding Privacy. The simmering controversy was reinvigorated with Ronald Reagan's political ascension in 1980.

from Wikipedia article on the case:

In January 1973, the Supreme Court issued a 7–2 decision ruling that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides a "right to privacy" that protects a pregnant woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.

Given Steve Job's upbringing and early adult experiences, it is unsurprising that he would be following attentively the "zeitgeist" surrounding the issue. Also, given this topic and the relative lack of public consensus about it, it is unsurprising that the interviewer quickly moved along...

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    This makes plenty of sense at least as context, though if this is what he had in mind I wonder why he would make the connection in that part of the discussion. May 21, 2021 at 17:38
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    @StayOnTarget Well, I'd say he is trying to tell (or sell) a story about the rise of personal computers against establishment, centralized, IBM-driven computers. And using the prevailing Privacy concerns as yet another reason to join the pursuit of anti-establishment, decentralized, anti-IBM, personal computers.
    – Brian H
    May 21, 2021 at 17:57
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    Although the concept of privacy was key to the Supreme Court's Roe decision, I don't know many (any?) people who thought/think "abortion" when they heard/hear "privacy" or vice versa. Similarly, I don't associate Big Brother/1984 with the abortion issue.
    – Armand
    May 22, 2021 at 7:29

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