The Known Citizen by Sarah E. Igo

The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America
by Sarah E. Igo
Harvard University Press, 2018

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“Only in the twentieth century did privacy emerge as a central concern of American life, with some commentators going further, tagging it an obsession or a 'cult,'” writes Sarah Igo, professor of history and Director of American Studies at Vanderbilt University, in her monumental new book The Private Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America. “And only then was it vigorously pursued as a public, and sometimes collective, claim.”

At the century's midpoint, Chief Justice Earl Warren sounded a very public warning about the dangers advancing technology presented to the practical realities of privacy, but it even then it was an old concern, stemming in the 20th century from Olmstead v. United States, a 1928 ruling of the Taft Court that upheld convictions obtained by wiretapping private phone conversations. Igo doesn't discuss Olmstead (although she finds the space to mention Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Harrumph.), but she necessarily discusses the 1967 case that overturned it, Katz v. United States, in which the Court recognized the “reasonable expectation of privacy” assumed by, for instance, someone using a pay phone. Katz was handed down in the wake of the landmark 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut, where the Court affirmed a constitutional right to privacy, a fundamental codification of “the right to be let alone” popularized in 1890 by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis.

In vigorous, smooth-flowing prose, case by case and landmark by landmark, Igo tells this story with an authority and insight no previous comprehensive account has achieved. She ranges her account across broad stretches of legal and social history, charting the changing nature of privacy in the public eye, and her narrative gains tension by its constant awareness of the crisis point at its conclusion, for the 21st century has brought both the idea and the practicalities of privacy into a crucible of abandonment and transmutation. Young people born in the century have reached adulthood with so fundamentally different a conception of privacy from that of their parents that the two things appear unrelated. In the 21st century, privacy has become news, entertainment, and above all currency, and survey after survey reveals people in all walks of life almost involuntarily snickering a bit at the very mention of the word. The overwhelming likelihood is that right now, while you're reading this, your laptop computer, cellphone, and plasma TV are on their default settings, allowing their cameras and microphones to eavesdrop on everything you do within their range. Your credit card, transit card, grocery discount card, and, if printed after 2003, paper money all leave invisible trails wherever you go, conveying vast amounts of data to concerned parties who've paid vast amounts to harvest it. Your purchases, movements, transactions, and patterns of power usage – all manifestations of privacy – are routinely co-opted and traded in ways that Taft, Brandeis, Warren, and all the rest could scarcely have conceived.

“If the drumbeat of headlines and bestsellers is to be believed,” Igo writes, “Americans are in the midst of an unprecedented privacy crisis – under 'relentless surveillance,' on the road to a fully transparent society, with 'no place to hide.'” The Known Citizen is the best history yet to appear of the long road leading to that unprecedented privacy crisis, and she concludes by observing that no matter how altered the modern landscape is, we cannot do without privacy. We shall see.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is