The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America by Sarah E. Igo

Sarah Igo’s The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America is an ambitious, sweeping historical work. The Known Citizen provides a cultural history of the accumulation and use of personal information in 20th century America. While this is primarily a cultural analysis, Igo also provides some legal history on the emergence of privacy rights. Over time social conventions and cultural values changed and moved the boundaries of “the private.” Igo proves American beliefs and expectations around personal privacy are ever-changing and often contradictory, reflecting varying public opinions about “the perils–and the promise–of being a known citizen.”

Prior to the Gilded Age, concepts of privacy were tied to property rights rather than individual identity. At the turn of the century, technology and urbanization contributed to future shock within the American upper middle class: newspapers with gossip columns, the use of postcards where private messages could be read by anyone, and identity-exposing innovations like the telegraph, telephone, photography, and fingerprinting. Consequently, the concept of owning a personal identity was born. The desire to remain private, or to simply control the personal information known by the public, led to a monumental 1890 Harvard Law Review article by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis positing a new tort theory based on a right to privacy. While tort claims regarding privacy were not immediately recognized in the law (but would develop over the next decades), a “right to privacy” emerged as a social construct. Igo argues that the desire for privacy among the upper middle and upper class gave rise to the attaching privacy to a concept of rights; however, such rights would not apply to women, minorities, immigrants, or political radicals. The treatment of opponents to US entry in World War One demonstrated how far the US would need to go before there was equal protection of civil rights, including privacy rightsThe desire for greater privacy is woven into long-standing reservations about government, institutions. At the same time being known to others is a vital aspect of citizenship, offering belonging and legitimacy. New technology, trends in mass media, the Cold War security state, and the cultural zeitgeist contributed American attitudes and expectations about privacy. Igo selects her historical subjects for demonstrative purposes. I think Igo’s approach is the only practical way of taking on this subject; it would be impossible to write a comprehensive history of privacy expectations. Finally, I think she does incredibly well in identifying compelling topics where the right of privacy arose (or was defined and/or limited): official identification documents, wiretapping, government record archiving, research studies, autobiographies, and documentary film. As readers, Igo  takes us on a journey across the twentieth century that shows us that attitudes about privacy have never been static and are most likely to be ever changing. 

Considering the 2020s, contemporary Americans worrying about identity theft, electronic surveillance, and “cancel culture” will be surprised to learn about their forbearers’ attitudes on personal privacy. Presentism, ahistorical assumptions, and/or wishful thinking cast contemporary bundles of rights and entitlements back to the founding. Countervailing forces against privacy were not only the state and corporations. Igo provides numerous examples of citizens wanting to be known and volunteering personal information, not only sharing but actively publicizing details about their lives. Igo’s account of the seventies and eighties presages the emergence of reality TV celebrity and social influencers who engage in a kind of voyeuristic pornography, exposing personal details in return for sources of income.  

I had very minor issues with this book. Igo makes the point that corporations and private citizens are also likely to make infringements on privacy, perhaps as much (or more) as government. While that may be true, I think private infringements are more benign than those of government. For one, a private citizen will have most likely have legal recourse against corporations and private citizens. Furthermore, government infringements are too easily connected to law enforcement. 

Second, Igo pays no heed to America’s economic transition over the twentieth century when, in general, all American became wealthier. With a richer society comes greater personal expectation for both privacy and being known and acknowledged. I think there’s a strong connection between greater American wealth and the Warren and Berger courts’ expansion of personal rights from the last ’50s and into the ’70s. While Igo covers the effort to afford more privacy to welfare recipients in the late 1960s, that only touches on the issue. Indeed, the argument that participation in a welfare program ought to remain a private relationship assumes a baseline condition of privacy for the rest of the population.  

Finally, I wish Igo would have connected American’s fear about computers in the ’60s and ’70s with contemporary worries about the tech industry and its predictive algorithms. It seems like a vast recycling of the anxieties over new technology, perhaps thsuggests am initial Luddite tendency that fades over time.

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