- The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America by Sarah E. Igo
by Sarah E. Igo
HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2020. 569 PP.
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 the late nineteenth century to the 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. [End Page 223] 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 multifaceted 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 article itself in court rulings. But she also delves into private letters written by the authors that shed light on the article'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...