Long be­fore Face­book, fear of pry­ing eyes

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY DAVID GREEN­BERG

Of all the forces that rev­o­lu­tion­ized so­ci­ety in the 1960s — the civil rights strug­gle, the an­ti­war move­ment, the Bea­tles — none mat­tered more than the Supreme Court. The court’s con­fi­dent ac­tivism un­der Chief Jus­tice Earl War­ren not only be­queathed Amer­i­cans a Christ­mas tree’s bounty of new rights, it also fur­nished tra­di­tion­al­ists with a tar­get in as­sail­ing the over­reach of un­elected lib­eral elites. And no War­ren court rul­ing prompted greater ridicule than Jus­tice Wil­liam O. Dou­glas’s as­ser­tion, in the 1965 case Griswold v. Con­necti­cut, that “spe­cific guar­an­tees in the Bill of Rights have penum­bras, formed by em­a­na­tions from those guar­an­tees that . . . cre­ate zones of pri­vacy.” On this fa­mously (or in­fa­mously) in­sub­stan­tial turf came to rest the es­tab­lish­ment of a “right to pri­vacy” that the court would use to le­gal­ize, in this in­stance, birth con­trol and, even­tu­ally, abor­tion, gay sex and more.

But Dou­glas’s ar­gu­ment, if in­tel­lec­tu­ally ac­ro­batic, wasn’t with­out le­git­i­macy. As the his­to­rian Sarah E. Igo re­minds us in her mas­ter­ful (and timely) new sur­vey, “The Known Cit­i­zen: A His­tory of Pri­vacy in Mod­ern Amer­ica,” amend­ments in the Bill of Rights do im­plic­itly rec­og­nize pri­vacy rights — specif­i­cally the Third (on the quar­ter­ing of sol­diers), Fourth (bar­ring un­rea­son­able search and seizure) and Fifth (against self-in­crim­i­na­tion). In fact, the high court had re­jected as early as 1886 “all gov­ern­men­tal in­va­sions of the sanc­tity of a man’s home and the pri­va­cies of life.” The ques­tion in 1965 wasn’t so much whether cit­i­zens were con­sti­tu­tion­ally en­ti­tled to pri­vacy but what pre­cisely that right should en­com­pass. Griswold, while surely a land­mark, did not re­solve that ques­tion. Crit­ics at the time won­dered whether the new con­sti­tu­tional al­lowance would cover pro­tec­tions from govern­ment sur­veil­lance, em­ployer-man­dated psy­cho­log­i­cal test­ing, in­va­sive polic­ing meth­ods or even tele­mar­keters. Some charged that Dou­glas had mis­named the right he plucked from the penum­bral ether: Per­haps, they said, he should have spo­ken of the “dig­nity of the in­di­vid­ual” or “the right to be left alone.”

That lat­ter phrase, le­gal schol­ars will rec­og­nize, ap­peared in the sem­i­nal 1890 Har­vard Law Re­view ar­ti­cle by fu­ture Supreme Court jus­tice Louis Bran­deis and his law part­ner Samuel War­ren, “The Right to Pri­vacy” — the point where Igo es­sen­tially be­gins her story. The at­tor­neys pro­posed this right in re­sponse to newly ag­gres­sive forms of jour­nal­ism that were turn­ing in­di­vid­u­als’ trysts and de­baucheries, or even mere gos­sip, into head­line fod­der. The Gilded Age saw the ad­vent of key­hole jour­nal­ism, in­stan­ta­neous pho­tog­ra­phy, tap­pable tele­phones, sur­rep­ti­tious let­ter-open­ing and the pry­ing moral­ism of sex crusaders like the no­to­ri­ous postal in­spec­tor An­thony Com­stock. Even pic­ture post­cards, Igo re­lates in one of many hu­mor­ous and eye-open­ing vi­gnettes, came un­der fire for en­abling, one magazine’s ed­i­tors wrote, “ser­vants and land­ladies to have the full ben­e­fit of our pri­vate mat­ters.”

As this di­verse mix of threats sug­gests, the right to pri­vacy has from the start been some­thing of a mud­dle, or maybe a smor­gas­bord — a se­ries of dis­tinct but some­how re­lated en­ti­tle­ments to be free of so­ci­ety’s in­tru­sions. “The Known Cit­i­zen” shows us that Amer­i­cans have in­voked “pri­vacy” to shield our pa­pers, cor­re­spon­dence, fam­i­lies, homes, phys­i­cal like­nesses, health, sex­ual prac­tices, per­sonal re­la­tion­ships, con­ver­sa­tions, where­abouts, pur­chas­ing habits, In­ter­net brows­ing

Be­fore the dawn of se­cu­rity cam­eras, like these watch­ing over Lower Man­hat­tan, Amer­i­cans wor­ried about the pri­vacy risks of post­cards and pho­tog­ra­phy.

and even the his­tory of our be­hav­iors. In­cur­sions upon it, mean­while, have come from nosy neigh­bors and the fed­eral govern­ment, from cor­po­ra­tions and jour­nal­ists, from law en­force­ment of­fi­cers and par­ents of teens. (An en­tic­ing foot­note cites a book called “Get Out of My Room!: A His­tory of Teen Bed­rooms in Amer­ica.”)

One group that plays a strik­ingly large part in Igo’s ac­count is so­cial sci­en­tists. These ex­perts, who probe our lives to learn and cat­a­logue all man­ner of data about our habits and pref­er­ences, also pro­vide a bridge from her pre­vi­ous book, “The Av­er­aged Amer­i­can: Sur­veys, Cit­i­zens, and the Mak­ing of a Mass Pub­lic,” which showed how the rise of polling and be­hav­ioral science sur­veys al­tered how Amer­i­cans thought of them­selves in re­la­tion to one an­other. “The Known Cit­i­zen” is thus a se­quel of sorts, as Igo moves from the pub­lic to the pri­vate. The new ques­tion is to what de­gree we can in­su­late our­selves from those reg­u­lat­ing pres­sures of so­ci­ety — or even if we can do so at all.

Pri­vacy is clearly a pro­tean con­cept, and Igo deftly re­views the def­i­ni­tions that schol­ars have of­fered in their ef­forts to cage its elu­sive essence. She judges these at­tempts help­ful but less than con­clu­sive. Her own am­bi­tious so­lu­tion is to em­brace pri­vacy’s mul­ti­far­i­ous­ness. In her marathon trek from Vic­to­rian pro­pri­ety to so­cial me­dia ex­hi­bi­tion­ism, she re­counts dozens of for­got­ten pub­lic de­bates — from the use of fin­ger­print­ing to find crim­i­nal sus­pects to the in­ven­tion of So­cial Se­cu­rity num­bers to track work­ers’ ac­crued sav­ings; from the 1950s vogue for per­son­al­ity tests to as­sess em­ploy­ees to the Water­gate-era fears of govern­ment sur­veil­lance. Col­lec­tively, they show the flex­i­bil­ity of pri­vacy as a tool in seek­ing to limit so­ci­ety’s gaze, what­ever forms it might take.

As in most aca­demic works of in­tel­lec­tual his­tory, the main ac­tors here are ideas and the­o­ries. Nar­rat­ing their his­tory in­evitably poses the chal­lenge of how to forge com­pelling read­ing from in­tan­gi­ble con­cepts. Igo rises to the oc­ca­sion most ef­fec­tively in those pas­sages that spot­light par­tic­u­lar peo­ple. One fas­ci­nat­ing ac­count deals with Laud Humphreys, a clos­eted gay Epis­co­pal min­is­ter whose 1968 so­ci­ol­ogy dis­ser­ta­tion ex­plored ho­mo­sex­ual hookups in pub­lic re­strooms, known as “tea­rooms,” and was pub­lished as a book in 1970. Humphreys’s re­search ex­posed elab­o­rate ri­tu­als fash­ioned in this demi­monde amid the need to main­tain pri­vacy in the face of a cen­so­ri­ous wider cul­ture. Igo’s keen nose for irony shows up in her fo­cus on Humphreys’s own un­eth­i­cal in­tru­sions upon his sub­jects’ pri­vacy — first by abet­ting their assig­na­tions as a look­out, or “watch-queen,” and then by se­cretly not­ing their li­cense plates in or­der to track them down and in­ter­view them later un­der false pre­tenses. More fas­ci­nat­ing still, Humphreys’s re­search — com­ing on the heels of con­tro­ver­sial ex­per­i­ments by psy­chol­o­gists Stan­ley Mil­gram and Philip Zim­bardo — fed into an en­tirely new pri­vacy row, about what kind of dis­clo­sure so­cial sci­en­tists owed to their sub­jects.

Igo’s fi­nal chap­ters chron­i­cle a threat to pri­vacy com­ing not from govern­ment or big busi­ness but from our­selves. Our cur­rent cul­ture of dis­clo­sure and self-dis­clo­sure has fed a craze for con­fes­sional mem­oirs, stoked the news me­dia’s will­ing­ness to re­port on politi­cians’ and celebri­ties’ pri­vate lives (and pri­vate parts), and flooded our screens with or­di­nary cit­i­zens’ over­shar­ing about their ill­nesses, their kids and their sex­ual en­coun­ters with Aziz An­sari. But just when it seems that she might con­clude, pre­ma­turely, with a ver­dict about pri­vacy’s demise — that we’ve gone from the fear of Or­well’s Big Brother to the self-dis­play of tele­vi­sion’s “Big Brother” — she un­der­scores that our con­tem­po­rary zeal for pub­lic­ity has co-ex­isted along­side a re­newed anx­i­ety about its lim­its. Since the 1990s, Congress has passed laws safe­guard­ing the pri­vacy of, among other things, our video-rent­ing habits, li­cense plates, health records and chil­dren’s data. While I was writ­ing this re­view, Google emailed me about its pri­vacy pol­icy up­dates, I heard a news re­port on the dan­gers of fa­cial-recog­ni­tion soft­ware, and an­other story told how nav­i­ga­tion apps are lead­ing mo­torists to speed through pre­vi­ously tranquil sub­ur­ban streets.

What unites these sundry as­ser­tions of pri­vacy is their claimants’ com­mon com­plaint that they de­serve some free­dom from the pro­lif­er­at­ing in­tru­sions on the self posed by a so­ci­ety that has be­come, over the past cen­tury and a half, more mod­ern, or­ga­nized, given to record­keep­ing, tech­no­log­i­cally ca­pa­ble of mon­i­tor­ing us and in­quis­i­tive. Igo’s ti­tle comes from a poem by W.H. Au­den, “The Un­known Cit­i­zen,” about a seem­ingly un­re­mark­able mid­cen­tury man whose life — like ev­ery­one’s nowa­days — was stud­ied and recorded by govern­ment agen­cies, cor­po­ra­tions, pub­lic opin­ion re­searchers and so­cial psy­chol­o­gists, and yet who re­mained, Au­den sug­gests, un­known in any true sense. As a so­ci­ety, we want to learn as much as we can about our­selves; as in­di­vid­u­als, we seek to pre­serve a mar­gin of anonymity, a sliver of the un­known.

Over time, Igo ar­gues, Amer­i­cans have largely judged the re­wards of so­cial knowl­edge to out­weigh the li­a­bil­i­ties. As much as we have lob­bied for — and even in­scribed into the Con­sti­tu­tion — a right to pri­vacy, we’ve cho­sen to coun­te­nance prac­tices of ob­ser­va­tion, sur­veil­lance and study that will help us in “re­port­ing the news, pro­tect­ing na­tional se­cu­rity, track­ing pub­lic health and so­cial wel­fare, un­der­stand­ing hu­man psy­chol­ogy, im­prov­ing com­mer­cial ef­fi­ciency” and more. Igo’s re­search and con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of this topic are ut­terly orig­i­nal, and yet in some sense hers is a story as old as Adam and Eve: We are un­done by our quest for knowl­edge.

David Green­berg is a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Rut­gers Univer­sity. His books in­clude “Re­pub­lic of Spin: An In­side His­tory of the Amer­i­can Pres­i­dency” and “Nixon’s Shadow: The His­tory of an Im­age.”


By Sarah E. Igo. Har­vard. 569 pp. $35

THE KNOWN CIT­I­ZEN A His­tory of Pri­vacy in Mod­ern Amer­ica

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