William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and gained control over most of the country within the next decade. As a new ruler in an unruly land, he didn’t have a good handle on his new subjects. If he was to quash rebellions, exploit resources and, most importantly, collect taxes, William needed to have comprehensive information.
Enter the Domesday Book. This exhaustive text recorded details about the land, its inhabitants, their buildings and livestock and pretty much anything else of value in England at that time. Wikipedia’s entry on Domesday sheds light on how the register came to be named:
The name Domesday comes from the Old English word dom, meaning accounting or reckoning. Thus domesday, or doomsday, is literally a day of reckoning, meaning that a lord takes account of what is owed by his subjects.
Perhaps most interesting to those of us that are involved in identity management, the Domesday Book was the first detailed register of individuals, and therefore was also the first significant identity document for a country. It not only recorded the names of the land owners and under-tenants, but also enumerated the peasants. From this, the population of 11th century England was estimated to be 1 million people.
The king was then able to rule from a position of knowledge. He knew who owned what land, what that land was worth, and who worked for each of the barons. Domesday told the king what he could tax and the information in the book could not be challenged or appealed.
Knowing the under-tenants of a baron was of particular interest to William — as part of solidifying his hold on the country, he sought these men out individually and had them pledge allegiance directly to him rather than their feudal lord.
Domesday provides an early example of the power of information, especially when that information is held exclusively (and non-transparently) by an absolute ruler. It is partly responsible for today’s well developed values of accountable government, democracy and appeal processes.
And, I suppose, herein lie the drivers for modern privacy legislation. In William’s world, privacy was not a concept so the collection of exhaustive information for any purpose was not even considered an issue. But as these registries became more and more common in subsequent governments, including democracies, the increasingly educated citizenry demanded increased transparency.