How We Lost Privacy

Today people are shamed for not sharing personal information about themselves.


The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America, by Sarah E. Igo, Harvard University Press, 540 pages, $35

Harvard University Press

A couple of years ago, I went to dinner at the Seattle Space Needle. To my surprise—I was over 30—the waiter asked to see ID when I ordered wine. I hadn't brought my purse from the hotel, so I had nothing with which to prove my age. In retrospect, this probably saved me from a $100 bar tab at their prices, but at the time I was annoyed.

Although we aren't officially required by law to carry identification, in practice it is necessary to get through many interactions. This has become increasingly true over time. As a teenager I bought booze without problems. I can also recall being able to fly domestically without showing ID. I still often go out with nothing but some cash in my pocket. Nonetheless, like all of you, I leave a paper trail of account numbers, credit scores, and biometric photos wherever I go.

In The Known Citizen, a highly readable new history of privacy in America, the Vanderbilt historian and legal scholar Sarah Igo offers insight into the ways attitudes have evolved as different forms of identification, and different expectations of privacy, have emerged.

When future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis conceived of privacy as a "right to be left alone" in the Harvard Law Review in 1890, he meant a right to be free from intrusive media attention. The state's attentions were less of a concern to him. The inflection point, the time when privacy advocates focused their attention on the federal government, was the New Deal.

Social Security numbers presented a major issue for anyone who saw government registration as an infringement of civil liberties. But as Igo shows, linking Social Security clearly with the benefits to be garnered from registration turned most citizens in favor of the idea. Being enrolled in Social Security showed that one was gainfully employed, an upright citizen. In the early days of the system, some people even chose to have themselves tattooed with their number.

The government promised that the numbers would be used only for Social Security purposes, but they soon crept into different federal agencies' files, becoming, just as skeptics had feared, a general means of identifying citizens. Since the 1980s, Social Security numbers have been widely issued at birth; an entire generation of Americans have now lived their entire lives with open federal files.

As the public became more relaxed about Social Security numbers, privacy concerns shifted elsewhere. After the Second World War, Americans pursued privacy in the form of the single-family home in the suburbs. Children would have their own bedrooms; the nuclear family would be free from extended relations and lodgers. But to some people's disappointment, the suburban ideal didn't free everyone from snooping neighbors. Away from the anonymity of cities, residents sometimes found themselves under more surveillance, subject to social censure for transgressing community norms.

Expectations of privacy in the home are also culturally freighted, to a degree Igo doesn't fully cover. Northwestern European architecture (which was imported to the U.S.) tends to have houses with windows facing the street, allowing others to see in as the occupants see out. In much of Holland, it was traditional not even to have curtains, such was the literal transparency of good Protestant living. This is very different from the cloistered, courtyard-based styles of southern Europe and parts of Asia, where passers-by can see nothing of a house's interior. Adjusting to American norms of domestic privacy was part of an immigrant's assimilation.

Anxiety in this space ran high in the 1960s with concerns about wiretapping and eavesdropping. Popular magazines described how tiny transmitters could be concealed, and high-profile court cases tested the police's right to listen in on phone conversations. Some of the fascination with spy gadgets probably bled over from popular culture—this was the era of James Bond and Mission: Impossible, after all. The number of micro transmitters actually hidden in martini olives or behind tie pins must have been very small. But the concern also demonstrates how much our expectations have changed since then.

Where people once feared surveillance in their residences, their children now provide the cameras and microphones themselves. Home security systems offer live video streams accessible anywhere. People share their private conversations with devices such as Google Home and Amazon's Echo. The recent subpoena of an Alexa—the artificial intelligence inside an Echo—that may have "witnessed" a homicide should give all of us pause about what our devices may be recording even when we think they're not.

That's the crux of the matter: Even people who resist the idea of the government having our information will willingly open the curtains to private companies—some of whom then turn what they learn over to the government, or leave it vulnerable to hackers. They have our names, our addresses, our bank details, our pictures, our email correspondence, even our current heart rate. Their geotracking knows where we are at any time.

The same shift can be seen with fingerprinting. Early initiatives to fingerprint all citizens, or even just those in particular occupations, faced fierce resistance. Fingerprinting was associated with criminals and enemy aliens, not upstanding free individuals. To be classed among the undesirables in that way was degrading and offensive.

Today, we happily give our prints to Apple so we can use them to unlock our smartphones.

Igo also considers privacy in terms of citizens' rights to be free from other kinds of intrusion, such as involuntary participation in medical studies. Medical privacy laws and modern norms around informed consent emerged in the 1970s, changing both how health care providers operate and how universities must treat research subjects. Our legal right to information held about us, through the Freedom of Information Act and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, has allowed citizens to take a peek at their permanent records.

The Supreme Court has invoked a presumed right to privacy in several landmark rulings about the state's right to intervene in a citizen's personal life. From a legal standpoint, nonetheless, the "right to privacy" is something of a quagmire. Although the 1965 birth control ruling Griswold v. Connecticut and the 1973 abortion ruling Roe v. Wade both hinged on the idea, the Framers did not specify such a general right in the Constitution.

Whatever claim we may have to privacy, the state rides over in other circumstances. To this day, privacy doesn't protect me from criminal charges if I'm caught using heroin or practicing bigamy, although those activities are arguably just as private as the choice to use contraception or terminate a pregnancy.

Our views on what should be kept private have changed in the culture as well as the courtroom. Writers now produce tell-all autobiographies that would have left earlier generations with mouths agape. We don't blink when a celebrity admits to drug use, infidelity, cosmetic surgery, or any number of things that previous eras would have deemed private. In fact, we celebrate such openness. Revealing your personal history is now seen as "brave."

Things once held to be shameful are now accepted, even lauded, and those who don't want to share the details of their personal lives are portrayed as uptight or weird. Gays get shamed for not coming out, as though by keeping their private lives private they are betraying society at large.

Privacy keeps its hold on some things, of course: There is a reason we have a reality show called Celebrity Rehab but not one called Celebrity Abortion Clinic. Some things people won't share, even in our "let it all hang out" culture. But we live in an age where people clamor to expose their personal lives on TV, and where those who don't have access to a television studio still offer videos of themselves on Instagram and Facebook. They demand the right not to be let alone. Louis Brandeis must be turning in his grave.

NEXT: Brickbat: In Plain Sight

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  1. Welcome, Frau Gulliver.

    1. There’s a slightly paradoxical dynamic involved. Closeness and belonging largely require privacy. People don’t get enough closeness and belonging, so they enact parts of it, behaving as if there was privacy and share all those things. Under the surface, it leaves them alone, lonely. And they destroy the privacy they need for the true thing.
      They don’t fully understand, and this seems the fastest way to achieve a momentary feeling of closeness and belonging. To get out of the cycle, they would have to invest, to delay gratification. Which is not easy, and seldom done. And it just gets more difficult the more they’ve destroyed their privacy, the longer they have been lonely, and the more a habit has formed.

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      2. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

        This is what I do… http://www.jobs63.com

    2. Good article. Could use some links, but nicely written and on topic nonetheless.

      1. 21st century auto de fe, and victims are happy to participate.

  2. Some of the willingness to share semi-private information is not caring about keeping that information private.

    If you put personal information, like what school you attended, on Facebook or other social media you are voluntarily sharing information about yourself that strangers might not know. Your friends and family will know what school you attended or can ask another family member.

    Snooping strangers and government use these innocuous tidbits of personal information to link and verify you with other information. They build a profile on you and then add information about you as it becomes available.

    I am more worried that a precedent has been set that government is entitled to information about Americans without a warrant because so many knuckleheads give out personal information like candy.

    1. The government doesn’t need social media to know all that stuff, where you live, work, went to school, who your relatives are, etc. That’s all tracked by private companies and governments already.

      1. As someone who worked in government, I can tell you that government info is not exact and the shear volume of info is not their friend. The more sources to confirm the info, the better the info will be.

        People flip out about facial recognition but voluntarily allow it on FB and Instagram.

    2. Posting stuff on Facebook is one thing but the at-home listening devices are an entirely different thing. That people are literally bugging themselves so that they can save 2 seconds by saying something that they used to type into a web browser is beyond me.

      The author mentions it but for those who aren’t aware they will be coming for your Alexa history. “Amazon argues, the police should jump through several legal hoops before the company is required to release your data.” Notice Amazon isn’t saying that they won’t give up your data. They will and all it takes is a warrant (or enough pressure from the government on Amazon).

      1. Notice Amazon isn’t saying that they won’t give up your data. They will and all it takes is a warrant (or enough pressure from the government on Amazon).

        Especially when, as far as Amazon is generally concerned, they could generally encrypt the whole thing into a black box as long as “55 gal. drum of personal lubricant” or whatever is all that comes out the other end and police could just as “Is a hockey mask, 9″ carving knife, rusty stihl chainsaw, copy of the Quran (or Turner Diaries, w/e) in this suspect’s order history?” To which Amazon can simply affirm or deny under oath.

  3. You have nothing to fear if you didn’t to anything wrong…

    1. Other than three felonies per day.

    2. Not doing anything wrong is suspicious. Try driving at exactly the speed limit and coming to a complete stop at intersections on a Saturday night. You’ll get pulled over for suspicion of drunk driving.

  4. A very strange thing happened to me at the grocery store just the other day, I picked up a bottle of wine to go with the stuff I had picked up for dinner and the cashier – who appeared to be about my age (old) – rang it through, asked me for my birthdate and typed it in and went through the rest of the order. At the end, I suddenly remembered I needed a pack of cigarettes so she called over to the service desk where they keep the cigarettes for a pack. And then she asked me for my ID. When I laughed about the fact that she just sold me a bottle of wine without asking for an ID but she couldn’t sell me a pack of cigarettes without an ID, she just shrugged and said yeah, there’s security cameras and if she’s caught selling a pack of cigarettes without an ID coming out she’d get fired but they don’t have the same rule for alcohol. I guess cigarettes are a higher order of demon than alcohol. Just seemed almost surreal to me. (Especially since I’ve been buying both cigarettes and alcohol since I was about 14 thanks to the fact that the guy who owned the carry-out in town was our neighbor and I guess he figured if we weren’t buying the beer and cigarettes from him we’d just be getting it somewhere else so he might as well get the sale.)

    1. You should try buying spray paint in some places.

    2. Ifplenty of perfectly adjusted people enjoy the occasional drink because it enhances their enjoyment c a dinner or spot ing event, but 98.6 percent of scientists agree that there’s never a good reason to smoke. I don’t know of a scientific conclusion more conclusive than that.

  5. Celebrity Abortion Clinic

    I smell a ratings smash!

    Anyway, the only sane response to all of this is to live as if there is no privacy. Because there isn’t. I suppose if you have… reasons… to pretend otherwise, well you’re basically SOL.

    Same goes with data “security”. All the nonsense with fingerprints and fifty different passwords that you have to change every sixty days is theater.

  6. Just wait until they get our search histories. Privacy is dead. Might as well get used to it. “He that lives not in a glass house among you, let him first cast stones,” as a wise man once explained.

  7. Sock it to me!

  8. In the early days of the system, some people even chose to have themselves tattooed with their number.

    You know who else tattooed identification numbers on people (albeit against their consent)?

    1. But the nice people who enacted the Social Security system promised, PROMISED, that Social Security account numbers would NEVER be used as national ID numbers.

      Keep that in mind when someone in Washington(or your own state capital) assures you that the legislation he/she is currently pushing won’t *really* affect all that many people and won’t be used for any other purposes by any other branch of the government.

  9. Things once held to be shameful are now accepted, even lauded


  10. As described here, this arc of decreasing privacy ignores the earlier phase of humanity. Once upon a time, 99.99 percent of people lived their entire lives within a few miles of their birthplace, and, during their lives, interacted with the same few hundreds of people. Homes were small, sleeping areas common, and multiple generations shared the same bed. Everybody knew what everyone else did and said, all the time. I doubt these people ever thought about privacy, and would probably laugh at our modern whining.

    Perhaps in some way (and for some deeply imbedded reasons) we have recreated the same universal social exposure people had in ancient times.

    1. Except that we now give that info to strangers halfway around the world while we know nothing about our neighbors or them us. So we’ve actually lost the social functions of connection that that info sharing back then served.

  11. These days we’re afraid that no one’s watching…

    1. There’s that story about how people fail to understand that the Sting song “I’ll be watching you” [or whatever] is not romance but stalking. Of course people also fail to understand that Sting songs are awful.

  12. A couple of years ago, I went to dinner at the Seattle Space Needle. To my surprise?I was over 30?the waiter asked to see ID when I ordered wine. I hadn’t brought my purse from the hotel, so I had nothing with which to prove my age.

    I don’t live on this planet and I know I’m not alone. I’m almost certain it’s predominantly, if not exclusively inhabited by women. I got a leather wallet at age 16 when I got my license and, ever since, I’ve had ID on me anytime I left the house. If you find a body floating in a public pool or a beach you’ll know it’s me because the ID will be in the pocket and if you find the body, the ID, and no credit card, it’s because the card was stolen.

    I don’t think I’d freak out if I left the house without my ID/wallet, it just significantly increases the chance that I would be wholly dependent on the kindness of strangers and, save some significant intervening circumstances, that’s (personally) somewhere between repugnant and deplorable.

    1. Yep. A man in our society wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without ID and credit cards. The only exception would be career criminals who use only cash.

    2. Men’s clothing reliably has pockets suitable for a pocket wallet. Women’s doesn’t. So women don’t use the kind of wallet that fits in a pocket, they’ve got those wallets that go in purses. Which means that it takes a special effort to bring the ID along if they decide not to carry their purse, over and beyond grabbing some cash.

      1. Or, they could choose to wear more practical clothing.

  13. Tetapi orang-orang baik yang memberlakukan sistem Jaminan Sosial dijanjikan, DIJANJIKAN, bahwa nomor rekening Jaminan Sosial TIDAK AKAN PERNAH digunakan sebagai nomor ID nasional.

  14. Your first mistake was going to the Space Needle, aka “Denny’s in the sky”

    Overpriced and extremely mediocre food does is not made up for by the view. You might as well go to Applebee’s.

  15. Unfortunately, much as I argued to the contrary in law school, there is no Constitutional right to privacy and Douglas’ mental gymnastics reveal only that a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

    That said, there is also no Constitutional warrant for the pervasive invasion of our homes and lives that has taken place since the 1930s, unless one assumes that the Constitution was intended to create a government monolith beyond the control of its citizens.

    Privacy is, simply, the core value of any person’s life and the central tenet of libertarianism. And the only way to protect it is to guard it against as many intrusions as you can — which will come nowhere near the possible intrusions that are out there. Yes, privacy can be taken from you but that is no reason to surrender it voluntarily, especially when you bear in mind that government is not going to surrender the power you so graciously accorded it.

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  17. An error I’d like to point out. We do not give our fingerprints to Apple. The fingerprint information is all handled and stored in the phone and never goes anywhere else.

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