Privacy Must Be Defended


Review of The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern Americaby Sarah E. Igo

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018



Privacy is a compelling mess. It is a concept overloaded with images and emotions. Today, its mention is guaranteed to elicit recognition as an important value worth defending. Yet it is also pigeonholed into narrow tropes that infuse the concept with a sense of defeat. Too often, privacy suggests an individualized “creep factor:” a right of and for atomized individuals, invasions of which result in some intangible injury on their feelings, and which may be freely and rationally traded for other goods like security and convenience. Legal scholar Julie E. Cohen writes that privacy “has an image problem,” stereotyped as “antiprogressive, overly costly, and inimical to the welfare of the body politic” (1904). It is the curmudgeon’s lament, the snowflake’s virtue. 

Today, this myopic conception of privacy has been co-opted by Big Tech as an easy way to tick the box and continue extracting personal data for recombination and resale. Just this summer, Google blithely announced that “privacy is at the heart of everything we do” while granting us the right to delete some of our old data – long after it has been mined by advertisers. Reduced to symbolic gestures of individual consent, such palliatives leave the wider apparatus of surveillance capitalism intact. Longstanding reductions of privacy into creep factor has similarly hampered efforts to leverage the Snowden leaks towards meaningful advances in civil rights. In both the legal and public spheres, challenges to electronic surveillance dragnets meet the tired old refrain that privacy intrusions are either justifiable (as long as they let us catch the bad guys) or negligible (as long as you have done nothing wrong). 

Sarah E. Igo’s The Known Citizen helps us reach for a more capacious - and historically situated - understanding of what is at stake when we talk about privacy. Indeed, the book does not begin with familiar platitudes around privacy, but a question: what might be the “proper threshold for ‘knowing’ a citizen” (1)? From the inception of the social security number to reality TV and confessional culture, Igo shows that privacy is never a simple demand for secrecy, but indexes historical shifts in what kind of control we can exert over the terms of our social existence. In what ways are we made to count for reasons of employment or immigration? What kind of leeway do we have to determine the terms by which we carve out a social, professional, or personal self for ourselves and others? Igo asks, “Could known citizens be happy? Were they, in fact, free” (2)? What emerges is not so much a picture of privacy as a discrete value, to be respected or ignored in isolation, but an index of power relations that undergird the essential freedoms of a liberal society. 



The Known Citizen traces formative episodes in a hundred years of American privacy, from its début in the 1890s to confessional culture in the late 20th century. It is not a comprehensive or linear chronology, but a critical selection of controversies which, put together, depict a complex see-saw of privacy and publicity. Igo suggests that what we mean by privacy went through a set of gradual mutations over this period. An initial emphasis on tangible claims and figurations of physical spaces gave way to robust conceptions of more intangible battlegrounds, such as the human mind and personality. Complicating matters were Americans’ frequent “embrace of disclosure” (14). What often mattered was not privacy or publicity for its own sake, but the kinds of control that might be gained over people’s information. In the book, sex and intimacy often loom large in landmark struggles for the right to privacy – but we also find gay communities in the 1980s embracing disclosure as a strategy for new rights and acceptance. Privacy has never existed on a simple continuum of more or less information. Rather, it names the ongoing struggle around the terms by which I am made known, and who determines those rules of the game. 

The book’s historical survey provides a useful vantage point for reassessing how we tend to talk and think about privacy. And what is often telling is not what we say about privacy as an object, but what we theorize about a person such that they require such privacy, and what we theorize about government or corporations such that they are seen to invade that privacy. Igo suggests that the century of American privacy was also a century in which we developed a notion of personality as a cohesive and internal entity. Thus Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis’ “The Right to Privacy,” that original text for modern privacy, calls for legal protections around an individual’s “inviolate personality” (38). Postwar commentary also raised concerns around the “subtle pressures on the person flowing from modern social organisation,” from school records to the behavioural sciences (101). What emerges over time is an internal, informational, intangible, yet integrated sense of self that depends on privacy to be free. 

But the emergence of personality as an object of protection was itself a response to new interest in personality as an object of capture. Igo’s selection of formative episodes in privacy’s history makes this clear. In the mid-century rise of the behavioural sciences, we find the central motivation of rendering human intention and choice in calculable form. The tools they developed for quantifying human subjects were often taken up by the business of advertising, and over the 20th century, intersected with techniques of population control across areas like management and policing. For both governments and corporations, data-gathering for purposes of welfare provision or hiring decisions often entailed moralized judgments about what kind of person is deserving of aid or employment. Igo mentions the work of mid-century personality testers, who probed candidates’ personal lives on behalf of prospective employees. Some engaged in “wife-testing,” “whereby a man’s spouse was subjected to scrutiny […] in order to shed light on the prospective hire. There were even reports of ‘undercover’ psychologists who posed as an employee from another city” to observe the candidate (136-7). 

Privacy, The Known Citizen shows, was never simply about a quantitative rise in numbers and papers surrounding the modern citizen, but also institutions’ specific interest in using data as a way to know their “personality” such that this knowledge might then define and even overrule one’s own expression of choice, intention, desire, morality.

Today, this is exactly how new technologies of datafication seize novel sources of surplus value. Critical data scholars have shown how the business of surveillance capitalism depends on producing an ever growing array of social situations in which machine-readable correlations speak on your behalf. Where Silicon Valley talks of disruption as an intervention into existing market relations for the sake of optimizing them, the real disruption is their intervention into existing social relations precisely by inventing new ways to dispossess people of their personality. This is the intended effect, not an unintended consequence, of the long struggle for the power to know the citizen.  



But who counts as a citizen? The history of privacy and surveillance is a history of how different kinds of bodies are subject to different kinds of rights and protections. The Known Citizen is at its most powerful when illustrating these disparities. Time and again, invocations and intrusions of privacy “were ways of defining, and divvying up, civic membership” across different groups in society (4). Privacy has never, in its history, been achieved as a basic right equally distributed. As Igo shows, privacy’s modern birth at the hands of two Boston lawyers – Warren and Brandeis – was inspired by elite anxiety that the kind of discretion they had previously enjoyed was being eroded by cameras and tabloids. Public appeals for privacy hinged on particular figurations of the American subject, into which was distilled implicit judgments about whose privacy was worth defending and whose was not. The terms of such separation, of course, tended to mirror pre-existing power asymmetries that marked many Americans out for variously impoverished forms of citizenship. Differential access to privacy rights, Igo shows, was often a way to enforce and to redraw the lines governing who has access to what kinds of spaces, services, and ways of life.  

Case in point is the book’s remarkable analysis of the Social Security Number, devised in the 1930s as a means to administer the New Deal’s social security benefits. Yet arriving at a time when many Americans still lived relatively undocumented lives, the prospect of a universal number aroused nationwide suspicion. The public speculation, not to mention the concerted political opposition, tangibly impacted the scope and design. The Social Security Board ended up rejecting fingerprinting and metal tags, which “had been cordoned off in public consciousness, associated as they were with the marginal and the troublesome” – resulting in the famously flimsy paper cards (56). These perceptions reflect the enduring imagination of surveillance as something that only applies to the Other – the criminal, the terrorist, the poor. Today, mugshots and CCTV footage continue to circulate enduring cultural stereotypes around what kinds of bodies “deserve” to be on the other side of the camera. Such stereotypes return with a vengeance in the newest surveillance technologies, like the now notorious pattern of vigilante racism in the community of surveillance platform neighbors. Tech enthusiasts are happy to volunteer to insert microchips under their skin when it is dressed up in posthumanist fantasies – rather than the traces of surveillance’s violent and discriminatory history.

Whose privacy do we tend to value, and whose do we forget – or consider dispensable? As Warren and Brandeis were helping invent the modern meaning of privacy, Americans were engrossed by the case of Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Co. (1902). Abigail Roberson, an upper-class white woman, found to her horror that her face was being used to sell flour. Her lawyers protested that the lady had been driven to seclusion by the shame, and “was effectively made a prostitute by this circulation and display” (95). While Igo does not mention it, Black faces were also being appropriated without consent for promotional purposes. In “The Whiteness of Privacy,” Eden Osucha shows how the fictitious persona of Aunt Jemima was concocted in 1893 to sell pancake mix – and subsequently toured the country for years, wherein “a corked-up white man in cross-racial, cross-gender drag” put on a show for the brand (88). It was only this year, after almost 130 years, that Aunt Jemima was finally retired in response to protests around the police killing of George Floyd. 

Elsewhere, The Known Citizen consistently shows how marginalized populations often had no pre-existing protection of privacy to begin with, and were likely to be disproportionately vulnerable to new technological harms. Igo cites, for instance, public health surveillance at the turn of the 20th century that often targeted the urban poor and people of colour. Even as many affluent Americans enjoyed a sufficiently undocumented life to find the idea of a Social Security Number scandalous, tuberculosis patients in Maryland were being observed for “whether [family] members kissed each other on the mouth” (45). Similar techniques would only become nationally controversial when, during New York’s 1916 polio epidemic, they were expanded to the rest of the population. The book is at its most powerful when it stacks these disparities over decades and generations. Again and again, across many different technologies and social situations, different bodies are subject to unequal rules of visibility and exposure – and it is so often the same groups that are left behind.

Over time, such asymmetries would become baked into not only America’s laws and social norms, but also its cities and physical spaces. Igo suggests that for much of the 20th century, it was the idealized middle-class suburban home that supplied the sympathetic figure of victim for privacy harms. The book recounts how in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the landmark case that ruled that prohibitions of married couples’ use of contraceptives violated privacy, the defence relied on imagery that hearkened back to the sanctity of the home and of the heterosexual couple imperilled by snooping cops (155). Such ideas around the adult bedroom were already baked into public housing codes and thus literally built into the walls. (112) Yet cops snooping in bedrooms was exactly what other, less normative bodies were subject to. For instance, female welfare recipients were constantly monitored, as any suspicion of ‘consorting with men’ would lead to them being disqualified for benefits. For many, the right to live in the first place would be made conditional on screening interviews and other forms of scrutiny that often kept white neighbourhoods white. Put together, these episodes point to the enduring ways in which decisions around who deserves privacy and who does not are often driven by power asymmetries, and then justified through a moralization of normative conduct. Hence a recurring refrain during the Snowden leaks, and other controversies over government surveillance: that I have nothing to be afraid of if I have done nothing wrong. The implication is that surveillance is a problem for criminals, terrorists, immigrants, the poor, but not for me; that they must deserve what they get, but I deserve better.



There is, of course, the other side of the coin: what are the implications, what are the ‘harms’, of such differentiated distribution of privacy? Again, The Known Citizen helps us look beyond a narrow conception of direct harms or the creep factor, and towards the ways in which privacy undergirds and enables the basic freedoms of a liberal society. The disparate ways in which we are watched and documented further create differences in what kinds of data are made to count for a person’s being, and what new skills, resources, ways of life, are valued or condemned by the new rules of the game. The introduction of new passport requirements during World War I, for instance, did not simply apply institutional judgment where there was none; rather, it replaced existing norms by which immigration officials would judge by personal appearance to screen away “Chinese labourers, as well as ‘idiots,’ ‘lunatics,’ convicts, prostitutes,” and so on (62). This is mirrored in the history of credit scores. In his book Creditworthy, Josh Lauer shows how early efforts at systematic scoring involved human agents interviewing neighbours to gauge the character of a person. And, as we see in more recent algorithmic systems, the regimentation of such judgment into quantified systems often rearticulates existing disparities in other terms, further entrenching them under a renewed guise of machinic objectivity. 

The problem is not simply that such data might be inaccurate or otherwise of poor quality. Igo shows how when Social Security did arrive in 1936, it quickly numbered and documented an astounding number of Americans. But where it fell short, it tended to leave out agricultural labourers and other categories predominantly occupied by Black people (63). Some groups were eligible for the number, but faced discriminatory complications in the process of filing. Women and Jews feared that applying through their union or workplace would expose them to discrimination, as many had changed names or age to avoid this in the first place. (73) At a time when the accuracy of new surveillance systems like facial recognition are under intense criticism (and rightly so), we should also remember that technically accurate data thrown into a discriminatory social situation will exacerbate harms

The real crux of the matter, of course, lies not in the data itself, but the people and institutions behind the data and the power relations therein. In a discussion of mid-century debates around social science methods and the ethics of research, Igo cites the sociologist and civil rights activist Edward H. Peeples Jr. Opposing calls to scale up his own research on poor Americans’ consumption of dog food, Peeples argued that “those who deny the reality of poverty, hunger and malnutrition in America have always had an insatiable appetite for ‘hard data’ from those of us who have witnessed or experienced these misfortunes first hand.” (201-2) The exact same is now said of, say, police brutality and racism, where of course the keys to the technology that hold the police accountable are held by the police themselves. What use is a bodycam if officers are empowered to turn them off whenever they please and cite so-called technical malfunction? What use is a bodycam if officers kill a Black man and the released footage is so heavily redacted until it shows only black squares? What kind of data is missing, and what kind of data is demanded, and what is assumed as default in the absence of data, are all products of how privacy is theorized and under-theorized by those with power in each circumstance.  

Across these historical episodes, one key lesson is that an increase in privacy-as-obscurity is not necessarily empowering – or desirable. Igo argues that Americans time and time again embrace disclosure, and dedicates much of the second half of the book to familiar examples like An American Family, the extraordinary 1970s precursor to reality television, and the proliferation of confessional memoirs at the end of the century. But this is not to say that America’s respect for privacy is in a linear decline. The more nuanced lesson we might take from The Known Citizen is that the demand for privacy has always been a way of demanding that a certain group of citizens might retain the degree of control they have enjoyed (or have been presumed to enjoy) over the terms of their social existence. And for marginalized groups, it was often to demand that they are included in this set of normal protections. Sometimes, this was best pursued through a demand for obscurity and forgetting; at others, through disclosure on their own terms. For instance, Igo shows how disclosure, not secrecy, had become a key weapon for gay rights activists in the 1980’s, in no small part affected by the early public response to the AIDS crisis that seemed to further entrap gay persons into a spiral of shame and silence. Again, the point is neither visibility nor the lack of it in isolation, but rather, what distribution of control and access people have to the terms of their own social existence. In a discussion of confessional memoirs, Igo relays the words of critic Janet Malcolm in 1994: “As everyone knows who has ever heard a piece of gossip, we do not ‘own’ the facts of our lives at all” (332).



In its hundred-year history, privacy has never been a fully realized right in American life. Rather, it indexes a series of new encroachments, and always partial, always hard-fought efforts to mitigate the dangers of data. What protections were achieved tended to be distributed unequally, such that the rights granted to a “normal” citizen would be quickly stripped away at the first sign of irregularity—a price to be paid without choice if one should have the misfortune to be poor, to be Black, to suffer from a disability.  

This history holds important lessons for the typical frames through which privacy continues to be operationalized. Discussing the 1970s debates around social scientific methods, Igo notes how new regulations and norms around informed consent responded to scandals like the Milgram Experiments and, of course the Tuskegee revelations in 1972, when Americans learned that their own government had injected syphilis in Black men and monitored them for symptoms without adequately informing them. Yet informed consent itself operationalizes privacy through a particular set of assumptions. Privacy is made largely individual, transactional, rational – precisely the framing that has been so successfully exploited by surveillance capitalism. The data extraction industry has exploited the relative neglect of collective and diffused harms to privacy, selling a false bargain that as long as your data is anonymized and taken in broad daylight, the subsequent travel and recombination of that data to a myriad of hidden actors and causes is of no consequence. While many Americans have responded with resignation rather than willing compliance, that resignation is the result of a long historical failure to offer broad, general protections to privacy beyond the narrowly construed sense of direct and particularized harm. 

More generally, The Known Citizen shows how privacy is impoverished when reduced to a simple metric of how open or closed personal information is, in which the value of privacy is conflated with secrecy. This misleading abstraction fuels the argument that, for example, once something has been revealed in some capacity, it is then open season for anyone else to capitalize. Hence the common refrain whenever we talk about Facebook or the NSA: “nobody has any privacy anyway.” But accepting the exposure involved in walking in public spaces does not grant a free pass for the police to run facial recognition on my passing visage. Accepting the exposure to social media activity does not grant Clearview AI the right to extract, store, and process my images for whichever government client or bored venture capitalist that they deem fit to grant access. Visibility is always a situated question of who has access to my data under what kind of constraint, relative to what kind of effective control I have.

But let us return to privacy’s image problem. Aren’t we already resigned to its death? Can privacy really be protected? The historical lesson from The Known Citizen is, perhaps, that privacy is not a Pandora’s Box to be preserved or lost forever, but instead a name for a struggle that always has to be continued to defend basic freedoms. There is nothing in the history of privacy and related technologies that should make us suppose that the loss of privacy in the digital age is some inevitable result of technological progress. But there is everything to suggest that more equitable and accountable forms of surveillance and datafication only happen, partially, begrudgingly, as a result of powerful criticism and public outrage. The Known Citizen recounts the sustained public pressure that ensured that the use and circulation of the SSN would be tightly restricted. Of course, despite the Board’s efforts and assurances, the Social Security Number was from the very beginning hounded by state, corporate, and every other entity looking to capitalize on this new source of data for their own interests. Some companies even forged fake forms to collect data from employees, such as union affiliations. (76) “Unions fully expected that employers would use the new numbers to keep track of and punish ‘troublesome’ workers” (77). (Today, employee data is being used precisely to identify workers most likely to unionize.) Minimization and due process have only ever been partially respected as rules, eroded through a thousand petty instances of violation and gaslighting. Over time, the SSN would leak into other databases and agencies, until today it stands as an incredibly widely used, and thus incredibly insecure, number. 

Today, Big Tech insists that the criticism and feedback they receive from researchers, policy-makers and activists is all too much. As the world battles the coronavirus, Eric Schmidt – the former CEO of Google, and now serving as a key networking link between the American military and Silicon Valley – argues that Americans should be “a little bit grateful” for companies like Google. Mark Zuckerberg, faced with an advertisers’ boycott in protest of the platform’s repeated facilitation of hate speech, complains that he is being threatened and that he will not capitulate. Yet our capacity to influence the decisions of these powerful corporations remains extremely limited, especially given their massive investment in government lobbyists and internal surveillance systems for worker monitoring and intimidation. The belated critical attention that data extractors like Facebook are now receiving consists, at best, the bare minimum required to continue defending our rights.

Alvaro Bedoya argues that privacy is not only a civil liberty whose loss effects a generalized chilling effect, but also a civil right: “a shield that allows the unpopular and persecuted to survive and thrive.” The Known Citizen teaches us that it is a shield fraught with disparities and contradictions from the very start – a shield only ever partially achieved that leaves marginalized populations uncovered. Yet it is also a shield that we have no choice but to continue to fight for, tooth and nail, because what we call privacy constitutes nothing less than the basic condition for a free society.


Posted on 13 August 2020

SUN-HA HONG is Assistant Professor of Communication at Simon Fraser University and received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Technologies of Speculation: The limits of knowledge in a data-driven society (NYU Press, 2020).