Too Much Information   /   Spring 2015   /    Too Much Information

The Beginnings of the End of Privacy

Sarah E. Igo

What has happened to our privacy? Certainly, if recent popular titles are to be trusted—The End of Privacy, The Unwanted Gaze, The Naked Crowd, No Place to Hide (two different books!), Privacy in Peril, The Road to Big Brother, One Nation under Surveillance, and perhaps the creepiest entrant, I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did—we Americans are in the midst of an unparalleled privacy crisis. On one side are the Snowden revelations, Google Glass, drones, smart refrigerators, and commercial algorithms that seem to know us better than we know ourselves. On the other is the individual quest for self-exposure in an ever-expanding universe of social media: Here, it is not the state or corporations that seem to imperil privacy but, rather, willing exhibitionists, eager to dispense with the concept altogether as they share intimate details of their personal lives with strangers.

Few, however, have probed these twin worries about surveillance by powerful organizations and the “self-surveillance” of individual citizens—or, for that matter, how they might be related. Indeed, for a topic so consuming, it’s striking that we know so little about how we reached this point. Commentators of all stripes present threats to personal privacy as novel, even unprecedented. Yet the conditions they bewail, including the brave new worlds of Big Data and self-publicity, have been long in the making. Technological, political, and bureaucratic developments in the United States, afoot for at least a half century, presaged and continue to shape current thinking about privacy. Revisiting an earlier crisis around privacy—both the remedies enlisted to forestall it and its ambiguous aftermath—may therefore prove enlightening.

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