The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

by Sarah E. Igo, Harvard University Press, 2020,569 pp. Hardcover, $35.00 ISBN: 9780674737501

Sarah Igo’s sweeping history of privacy in The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America tells the story of how US citizens have conceptualized and negotiated ideas of privacy up to the current moment, when being unknown seems like an impossibility. This 2020 paperback edition is a reprint of the 2018 hardback edition. As the author of The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public (2007), Igo uses this study of what it means to “become known” in a way that builds on her previous work. The Known Citizen argues that privacy is not an essential or constitutional term but instead has been constructed throughout history. Taking a long view, Igo historicizes the meanings and trappings of privacy while asking questions about what it means to be “known” in a society. 

The book opens with a 1940 poem, from which the title of the book is derived, and spans from the late nineteenth century to present day, meticulously pulling at several threads that reveal long historical roots to the idea of privacy. Technology, broadly defined, is at the heart of this analysis, with chapters on the role of the printing press, telephones and other communication devices, and large-scale databases that collect identity information. Igo demonstrates the ways that these technologies pushed forth not only debates but a complete reframing of conversations around privacy. For Igo, early technology booms acted as catalysts that disrupted definitions of privacy, like the impact of print media and the subsequent inability of elites to fully curate their own public image. But even if privacy arguments were first made in public forums by and for elites, they would be used across multiple class lines within decades. However, she does not blur class lines, and instead offers astute analysis about how privacy concerns operated within classes. She notes, for example, that wealthy people were much more likely to be known by the government through their birth certificates, while working-class people were more likely to have personally felt the expanding surveillance state by having fingerprints on file. Igo demonstrates that privacy concerns had even more profound impacts on people who sought protective legislation. Becoming a “known citizen” meant something different for folks who faced open discrimination, such as women who felt compelled to lie about their age to secure employment. To become known at that point could have allowed them to buy into a system of social security benefits or, conversely, could have pushed them out of the workforce. 

Igo masterfully synthesizes a blend of previous historical narratives and some primary source accounts of privacy. She draws from a far-reaching body of literature, including legal scholarship, surveillance historiography, the rise of suburbia, and the history of technology. Although privacy has been approached by various fields, Igo’s own background as a historian clearly shapes this work. Not only does she trace the historical change, but she also takes a multi-faceted view using her own sources. In tracking privacy’s entrance to tort law with Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis’s 1890 article, “The Right to Privacy,” she shows the impact of the paper itself in court rulings. But she also delves into private letters written by the authors that shed light on the paper’s purpose. 

The book is organized chronologically, and each chapter takes a sprawling look at the topic. Some narratives, such as the Clinton scandal, are approached in multiple chapters. Throughout the book, Igo takes familiar events—for example, prohibition—and frames them in terms of privacy. She also weaves these narratives through watershed historical movements, such as the suffrage movement, to think about what it means for activists to bring their private lives into the public sphere. She dedicates several chapters to the creation of government-kept identities, as people became more known. But she also shows that these shifts were messy, with large, overlapping moments of increasing documentation of people, as well as people who left no documentation. 

The latter chapters, which focuses on new privacy concerns that rose from television and books, are the most engaging parts of the book. The 1970s reality show titled An American Family seemed like a sharp break in privacy norms when a family opened their home to cameras that captured a plethora of family drama and heartbreak, including divorce. But Igo reveals that the show’s high viewership was indicative of larger privacy trends. As Igo notes, “peering into others’ households from the comfort of one’s own living room was an old impulse” (286). Igo examines how entire writing genres shifted in the era of post-privacy, citing instances of self-disclosure in memoirs. She pulls this thread through to the genre of confessionals. But rather than viewing this genre as one of over-exposure, she views it as an attempt to control one’s own narrative in an era of the known citizen.  

Throughout the book, Igo tracks “the payoff between privacy and convenience,” but these intertwined concerns become more evident as she moves closer to the present (27). There are several through lines in the book—such as the “right to be left alone,” which entered the lexicon as a right in the years following the Griswold case. In this vein, certain conceptual ideas of privacy today are not new, like people expressing apprehension that the government knows too much about its citizens. Other technologies of knowing have not necessarily changed, but levels of acceptance around them have. Fingerprinting, for example, is now a practice that has moved beyond associations with criminality. But Igo shows that some things are more intrusive into contemporary private lives, such as the interlocking nature of the surveillance complex. 

This is an intellectual history at its core, as Igo traces what privacy has meant and the ways it has defined what relationships look like, whether between individual people, employers and employees, or government and citizens. Although the sprawling nature of the topic sends Igo’s analysis into several directions, from government records to personality tests, she still pulls the history into seamless streams of evidence that shed light on our post-privacy world. 

Andrea Ringer, Tennessee State University