Too Much Information   /   Spring 2015   /    Too Much Information

The Beginnings of the End of Privacy

Sarah E. Igo

THR illustration; surveillance camera; Ed Pritchard/Getty Images.

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.

In particular, we should turn our attention to the era that introduced the resonant concept of the “surveillance society”: the decade stretching from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Although a “right to privacy” had been proposed as early as 1890, these were the years when privacy was first widely recognized in the United States as a social and political problem.11xSamuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, “The Right to Privacy,” Harvard Law Review 4 (1890), 193−220. Deborah Nelson charts the “sudden visibility of privacy” in the early sixties in Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 26. This era also witnessed far-reaching attempts to preserve it. Beginning with the Supreme Court’s 1965 pronouncement in Griswold v. Connecticut that “zones of privacy” were guaranteed by “penumbras” of the Bill of Rights, a cascade of rulings across the next decade established privacy as a constitutionally protected right.22x Griswold v. Connecticut, US 479, 484 (1965); Although Griswold (which concerned the distribution of advice about contraception to married couples) specifically addressed “notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship,”33x Ibid., 486. the rulings that followed it made privacy the property of individual citizens who carried it with them as they traveled through society. Less than a decade later, new rights flowed from watershed legislation passed by the US Congress in the form of the Privacy Act of 1974.

What would become clear, however, was that new ways of housing and accessing personal data in the 1960s and 1970s could cast doubt on this liberal language of individual rights and state protections. A gathering understanding of the United States as a surveillance society made constitutional or legal victories for privacy understood as personal autonomy, bodily integrity, or control over decision-making appear hollow, even naïve. The simultaneous guaranteeing and undercutting of a rights-based vision would in turn reshape ideas about autonomy and intimacy. It meant that what looked like a culmination was only the beginning of our current dilemmas.

The Shrinking Sphere of Privacy

In what resembles a rehearsal for our controversies of the moment, there was in the mid-1960s a veritable explosion of public discussion centered on the shrinking sphere of personal privacy. A rash of exposés warned of privacy’s imminent eclipse, as did a series of legal-philosophical analyses: The Eavesdroppers (1959), Privacy: The Right to Be Let Alone (1962), The Privacy Invaders (1964), The Naked Society (1964), The FBI Nobody Knows (1964), The Intruders (1966), Privacy and Freedom (1967), and, in what would be a winning formulation, The Death of Privacy (1969).

For Myron Brenton, author of The Privacy Invaders, growing intrusions in the marketplace, at work, and in the community—ranging from direct-mail advertising to life insurance inspections, “in depth” employment application forms to corporate spying—added up to a “prying, digging, peering, and poking” goldfish-bowl age.44x Myron Brenton, The Privacy Invaders (New York: Coward-McCann, 1964), 163. Vance Packard reinforced this vision in his own 1964 bestseller, The Naked Society. Chapters with titles such as “How to Strip a Job-Seeker Naked,” “The Hidden Eyes of Business,” “The Very Public Lives of Public Servants,” and “The Lively Traffic in Facts about Us” fleshed out the author’s dire portrait of “mounting surveillance” on all fronts.55x Vance Packard, The Naked Society (New York: D. McKay, 1964). Popular journalists were among the first to sound the alarm, but politicians, academics, and activists were not far behind. Together, they publicized an ever-growing list of surveillance impulses, psychological invasions, and technological breakthroughs in breaching previously impenetrable “zones of privacy.”

Some of these intrusions, notably wiretapping and personality testing, were familiar, having lurked in the background of American life for some time. Others, like magnetic-strip technology on credit cards and a whole host of high-tech spy gadgets, seemed frighteningly novel. But old or new, all such invasions seemed to be escalating. And significantly, the regions of private life susceptible to prying and spying appeared boundless, the threat emanating not from one particular direction but from every corner of American society. The government and the military, corporations and workplaces, universities and hospitals, media and marketers, were each and every one “intruders.” To Senator Edward Long of Missouri, author of yet another tract about incursions into citizens’ private lives in the 1960s, this amounted to an “undeclared war on privacy.”66x Edward V. Long, The Intruders: The Invasion of Privacy by Government and Industry (New York: Praeger, 1967), 3.

Public anxiety would coalesce around the specter of the “data bank,” a term defined by New Scientist and Science Journal in 1971 as a “generalized collection of data not linked to one set of…questions.”77x Rex Malik, “The Databank Society: Can We Cope?,” New Scientist and Science Journal, March 4, 1971, 498. But the worry preceded the word, as awareness of the kind and volume of personal information filed away by corporations and the federal government increased. One 1966 survey estimated that the government possessed “more than 3 billion records on individuals, including 27.2 billion names, 2.3 billion addresses, 264 million criminal histories, 280 million mental health records, 916 million profiles on alcoholism and drug addiction, and 1.2 billion financial records.”88x US Congress, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Administrative Practice and Procedure, Government Dossier: Survey of Information Contained in Government Files (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1967), 7−9. Best-selling exposés about the scale of information banks had already unnerved readers. As a writer for Life magazine put it in 1964, “Most Americans who have served in the armed forces, taken out mortgages or insurance, made large purchases on credit or worked in defense industries know that, somewhere, dossiers on them are maintained. But few people have any notion of the extent of this dossier-keeping or of the number of facts (and gossip and lies) on file…on virtually every adult US citizen.”99x Robert Wallace, “What Happened to Our Privacy?,” Life, April 10, 1964, 10.

One sign of the rapid recognition of this state of affairs—in academia, in policy circles, and among the American public at large—was the hostile reaction to a proposed national data center that would pool information held by the Census Bureau, the Internal Revenue Service, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Social Security Administration, and the Federal Reserve Board. First recommended in 1965 by the Social Science Research Council, the idea of a national warehouse of citizens’ data was, for some, concrete proof of the state’s ambitions toward omniscience. Despite the evident efficiencies centralized storage would permit, members of Congress, journalists, and many scholars and citizens railed against the initiative, variously billing it as a “monster,” an “octopus,” a “great, expensive electronic garbage pail,” and a violator of citizens’ “secret lives.”1010xSee, for example, Nan Robertson, “Data-Center Aims Scored in Inquiry,” New York Times, July 28, 1966. Indeed, Americans protested not just once but continuously, so that proposals for massive federal data centers in 1965, 1967, and again in 1970 (this last the Government Accounting Office’s blueprint for a center called FEDNET) would all be “scuttled following energetic protests.”1111xHelen Nissenbaum, Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford Law Books, 2010), 39.

The spread of computing would play a key role in shaping the new consciousness about data. In 1970, Malcolm Warner and David Stone—a behavioral scientist and a computer scientist, respectively—noted that organizations now had “the technical power available” to implement George Orwell’s “chilling vision of a society under surveillance and control.” Warner and Stone explained that computers, those seemingly “innocuous boxes,” not only had “voracious appetites,” but could “digest, churn around, and regurgitate information at prodigiously high speeds.” And they warned of a new form of domination, rule by “computerocracy,” and the “potential destruction of freedom in our society” it could effect.1212x Malcolm Warner and David Stone, The Data Bank Society: Organizations, Computers and Social Freedom (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1970), 13, 15. Such warnings had a parallel in the popular media, Look magazine posing the question squarely in 1968: “The Computer Data Bank: Will It Kill Your Freedom?”1313xJack Star, “The Computer Data Bank: Will It Kill Your Freedom?,” Look, June 25, 1968, 27. A number of surveys supported the notion of a public newly aware of privacy threats from computer data banks. One from 1971 reported that 53 percent of respondents believed that “computerized information files might be used to destroy individual freedoms” and 58 percent that “computers will in the future be used to keep people under surveillance.”1414xA National Survey of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Computers (New York: American Federation of Information Processing Societies and Time, Inc., 1971).

The diminished status of the individual in a world of computerized records preoccupied most of the early writers on data banks. Sociologist Michael Baker, for instance, noted that the “ownership and control” of what he called “record identities” was, “for the most part, firmly in the hands of organizations…. The individual, qua individual, has little real power.” He explained that the individual in such systems was conceived of as an object rather than as a “citizen-with-rights,” and was therefore “a poor candidate for self-protection where record privacy problems are concerned.” Baker pinpointed the tremendous mismatch between the capacity of the record system and that of the citizen to keep track of even personal data. On these grounds, Baker believed that solutions would “have to be accomplished primarily for, not by, the individual—a paternalism which, while perhaps not welcome, does reflect the individual’s position in this society and his existential relationship to everyday record-keeping processes.”1515x Michael A. Baker, “Record Privacy as a Marginal Problem: The Limits of Consciousness and Concern,” in Surveillance, Dataveillance and Personal Freedoms, ed. Staff of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review (Fair Lawn, NJ: R. E. Burdick, 1973), 100, 101, 108−109, 111.

The sense that computers, or something equally non-human, such as a “record-keeping systems,” were the most dangerous violators of individual freedom was a striking feature of the age. Public law scholar Arthur Miller was concerned with the way in which the data bank could harden, or imprison, one’s history, making the computer “the unforgetting and unforgiving watchdog of society’s information managers.”1616xArthur R. Miller, The Assault on Privacy: Computers, Data Banks, and Dossiers (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1971), 65. If a “records prison” was one hazard of a data bank society, “dossier consciousness” was another. Sociologist Stanton Wheeler, a Yale Law School professor, mused, “It is conceivable that the record-keeping process itself could so blur our collective vision that we will become increasingly concerned, not with what we are, but with what the record makes us out to be.”1717x Stanton Wheeler, “Problems and Issues in Record-Keeping,” in On Record: Files and Dossiers in American Life, ed. Stanton Wheeler (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1969), 24. In this light, collections of data were not just intrusive or irritating features of living in the modern age, but, rather, did things to people, and maybe even changed the nature of personhood. Data banks had a way of ricocheting back on the person, inviting questions about what constituted a “subject of data.” Wrote Miller, “It is understandable that people may begin to doubt whether they have any meaningful existence or identity apart from their profile stored in the electronic catacombs of a ‘master’ computer…. There may be a very real sense in which a person will not exist outside of his computer dossier.”1818x Miller, The Assault on Privacy, 64−65.

The influential 1973 report Records, Computers, and the Rights of Citizens, commissioned by the US secretary of health, education, and welfare, itself blurred the distinction between the file and the person in its bleak references to citizens as “data subjects.”1919x US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Records, Computers, and the Rights of Citizens (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1973), 92. It otherwise framed the dilemma of human versus machine rather poignantly:

There is nothing peculiarly American about the feeling that the struggle of individual versus computer is a fixed feature of modern life. The discussions that have taken place in most of the industrial nations revolve around themes that are familiar to American students of the problem: loss of individuality, loss of control over information, the possibility of linking data banks to create dossiers, rigid decision making by powerful, centralized bureaucracies.2020x Ibid., 167.

From government reports to best-selling exposés, the sense that power was shifting in American society in favor of the institutions that controlled citizens’ data, and away from individual citizens themselves, was palpable. It was in this context, dense with foreboding about new authorities, new lines of power, and new kinds of domination, that the Supreme Court would elaborate—in a register that was perhaps already outmoded—an individual civil and bodily right to privacy.

Big Brother Is Watching You

Into the roiling debates over data banks came the scandals that would engulf the Nixon administration. Watergate would not so much trigger as confirm an emerging analysis of the United States as a surveillance society. But the scandal gave advocates leverage to press for remedies. One result was passage of the Privacy Act of 1974, which, in one fell swoop, disallowed secret data-gathering systems, prevented information collected for one use to be used for another, and enabled individuals to know of and correct material in their records.

In Watergate’s wake, almost no one could be found to defend the new data banks, not even those ostensibly in charge of them. President Gerald Ford spoke of the threat posed by computerized records in surprisingly vivid, nightmarish terms. In a speech on the Privacy Act at Stanford Law School, he declared, “We must protect every individual from excessive and unnecessary intrusions by a ‘Big Brother’ bureaucracy,” portraying the vulnerable citizen as a “faceless set of digits in a monstrous network of computers.”2121x David S. Broder, “Ford Vows to Enforce New Law on Privacy,” Washington Post, September 22, 1975; Philip Shabecoff, “Ford Sees Peril of ‘Big Brother,’” New York Times, September 22, 1975. Ford’s predecessor, Richard Nixon—the man largely responsible for stirring up the fears that had led to the act’s passage—employed equally dystopian imagery. In a radio address during the Watergate hearings, he warned that “until the day comes when science finds a way of installing a conscience in every computer, we must develop human, personal safeguards that prevent computers from becoming huge, mechanical, impersonal robots that deprive us of our essential liberties.” The president went on to say, “It is becoming much easier for record-keeping systems to affect people than for people to affect record-keeping systems.” With seemingly no sense of irony, Nixon called for open access to government records, claiming that “at no time in the past has our Government known so much about so many of its individual citizens.”2222x Richard M. Nixon, “Radio Address about the American Right of Privacy,” February 23, 1974, accessed at The American Presidency Project,

In earlier periods, activists had believed that they might halt infringements of privacy by holding specific individuals or entities liable. But in an era of computer databases and anonymous bureaucracies, it was increasingly difficult to identify those who invaded citizens’ privacy, much less curb their activities. In this sense, the Privacy Act would be an equivocal victory for privacy rights, as would become evident in the aftermath of the legislation’s enactment. Passed as a civil rights measure and designed to empower citizens, the law would, paradoxically, stoke fears that the United States had indeed become a full-fledged surveillance society, in which individuals were outmatched from the outset.

That there was no stopping the flow of data was the clear implication of a stream of commentaries in the mainstream press following passage of the Privacy Act. The law’s requirement that federal agencies publicly disclose their records systems exposed the real problem: Not even the bureaucracies themselves knew what they held in their files. As the Washington Post explained, “Some agencies were maintaining secret files and concealing some abusive practices from Congress and the public. The broader difficulty, however, was simply that the government’s data demands had grown so fast, and had been answered in so many uncoordinated ways, that not even the agencies themselves had a firm grasp of all their information practices.” Even once the inventories were mostly compiled—by the fall of 1975, “over 8,000 records systems…summarized in fat volumes of the Federal Register totaling 3,100 pages and more”—they were so various and unruly as to be incomprehensible.2323x “Focusing on Federal Files,” Washington Post, September 19, 1975.

The legislative solution to the problem of personal records was transparency, in the form of still more data. But this information itself fueled public apprehensions. The Los Angeles Times reported that “what has been revealed…is that the government keeps track of its citizens on a scale that not even the most paranoiac critic of government snooping would ever have suspected,” and that “there is apparently no detail about American citizens that does not interest some bureaucrat.” The report recounted a bewildering array of records maintained by the federal government: lists of New Jersey driving examiners, “behavior performances” of Kentucky tollbooth operators, and the results of hearing tests taken by Cincinnati firemen. Some of the data appeared harmless, but other records had a more sinister cast: “Why does the Department of Transportation need dossiers on everyone who ever had his driver’s license suspended or revoked? Why does [the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare] keep a file on children with birth defects?”2424x Linda Mathews, “Privacy Law Now in Effect,” Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1975. Even as government officials swore that “nothing could be further from the truth…[than] that the government keeps orderly files from which information is easily retrieved,” the torrent of data lent itself to scenarios of total surveillance.2525x Mary Lawton, deputy assistant attorney general, US Justice Department; quoted by John Painter, Jr., in “Well-Meant Information, Privacy Acts So Loosely Knit Administrators Going Ape,” Portland Oregonian, March 28, 1976.

Individuals who chose to exercise their rights under the Privacy Act could view and possibly even correct some of their personal information secreted away in the files of government agencies. Just a decade earlier, this kind of access to official records would have been unimaginable. In this sense, legislation in the 1970s would not merely lay down fair information practices. For better or worse, it would also endorse individuals’ growing claim to possession of their virtual selves, those bits of biography distributed across the society’s burgeoning data systems. Changing conditions of social life—faster computers, larger bureaucracies, expanding data banks—thus did not straightforwardly erode citizens’ privacy. These same conditions generated novel claims and claimants for the protection of personal information, ultimately producing new forms of privacy for the “data subjects” of the Watergate era.

Yet in all the commentary about the Privacy Act, few doubted that sensitive records on citizens, lodged in only partially penetrable systems, would continue to proliferate. Nor did the Privacy Act, which applied only to the agencies of the federal government, address the problem Myron Brenton had memorably described as “Big Brother in civilian clothes”: the extent of data collection by private employers, banks, insurance companies, telecommunications outfits, and marketing firms, all of which had amplified fears of privacy’s eclipse in the 1960s.2626x Brenton, The Privacy Invaders, 10. The exception to this pattern was the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the only law in place at the time to regulate private data banks. Although its authors hoped the Privacy Act would pave the way for “an expanded law protecting the privacy of all of us, in every aspect of our daily lives,” this would not come to pass.2727x“The Federal Government and Your Right to Privacy,” 121 Congressional Record, S30,496 (daily ed. Sept. 26, 1975) (statement of Sen. Muskie). A federal body, the Privacy Protection Study Commission, took up the question of extending the Privacy Act to private entities, but its deliberations went nowhere.

All of this suggested that laws and civil safeguards would not, and perhaps could not, alter the fundamental terms of a society largely run on the basis of information in computerized databases. Indeed, the Privacy Act may have done more to facilitate the ongoing collection of personal data than to staunch or even slow it. Sociologist James Rule has observed that privacy policy in the computer age gradually turned away from regulating the type, amount, and control of personal information stored in files and toward norms of fairness, accuracy, and security.2828x James B. Rule, Private Lives and Public Surveillance: Social Control in the Computer Age (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), 348. This was the new, if uneasy, pact that would be achieved in the 1970s between citizens and those who would know them through their records.

What lingered was an understanding of the United States as a “surveillance society”: a new kind of social organization with the collection and scrutiny of personal data as its basic feature.2929x Arthur Miller, “The Surveillance Society: Just How Far Can It Go?,” Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1970; David Murakami Wood, “The ‘Surveillance Society’: Questions of History, Place, and Culture,” European Journal of Criminology 6, no. 2: 179−94. If existing records systems did not yet constitute a “total surveillance society” à la Orwell—the costs were simply too high—scholars such as James Rule argued that they “now monitor some of the most important junctures between private individuals and the major institutions of modern society.”3030x Rule, Private Lives and Public Surveillance, 30−31, 36. Like the other concepts that came into being in this era—“records prison,” “dossier personality,” “information power”—the formulation implied a social order and a citizenry fundamentally shaped by new capacities to observe, record, and track. This was a vision of society that bore little resemblance to the individual rights−based framework that had seemed to promise a way forward just a decade earlier. Among other things, it implied that concepts of personal privacy might need retooling for a new era.

Exposing and Disclosing

Certain practices seemingly hostile to individual privacy migrated from corporate and state entities to the citizenry itself in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Americans embraced novel techniques of invading, exposing, and disclosing, from caller ID and elaborate home-monitoring devices, to the outing of homosexual and reclusive celebrities, to reality television and Twitter. The rise of a much-decried “confessional culture” appears at first glance like a fundamental discontinuity from the rights-oriented privacy talk of the 1960s, with its emphasis on protecting citizens from the gaze of others. How was it that some individuals, anyway, suddenly seemed to relish the prospect of making their personal lives—not to mention the lives of others—an open book?

The emergence of the “surveillance society” as social construct in the 1970s helps us begin to make sense of this impetus both to expose and disclose. A booming market in do-it-yourself spying was only the most obvious link to the novel concerns about data banks and records that surfaced in the era of Watergate. It arose, fittingly enough, out of privacy concerns. As others have observed, security systems first used by the military and then by industry moved into the consumer realm in the 1980s: Citizens began mimicking the very tactics that had begun to concern them in the 1960s.3131x Christian Parenti, The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the War on Terror (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 195.

But there were other trends that accord with what we might call a post-liberal understanding of privacy. The monitoring of private-property lines mingled with citizens’ voyeuristic excursions across other boundaries as developments in the media, and in religious and therapeutic culture, made personal revelations newly prominent in public forums. Television talk shows, popularized by Phil Donahue in 1967, took on a more spectacular and provocative form in the 1980s. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority energized evangelical Christians to merge their political and religious activities, making narratives of sin and redemption a key feature of national politics. And twelve-step groups ushered personal testimonies and trauma into Americans’ public vocabulary. To many commentators, all of this signified not just a shifting of the line between public and private but the collapse of the distinction altogether. The recent arrival of self-broadcasting genres such as blogging and social networking has only bolstered this conclusion.

Scholars have sought the origins of confessional culture in several distinct developments. Historian Ellen Herman has argued that a new vocabulary of the self moved into political discourse in the postwar period. Psychic health, authentic emotion, and self-interrogation all came to matter in, and shape, public life, allowing a “convergence between private and public domains, cultural and political concerns.”3232x Ellen Herman, The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in an Age of Experts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 12. Others have looked to the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s—especially the second-wave feminist movement, itself indebted to Herman’s “romance of American psychology”—which explicitly named the personal as political. The reorientation of politics around identity categories and toward questions of damage and status shifted the way publics in postindustrial democracies seemed to operate, this new mode perhaps amounting to, as social theorist Anthony Giddens has speculated, the characteristic “life politics” of late modernity.3333x Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 225. See also Nancy Fraser, “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age,” New Left Review No. 212 (July–August 1995), 68−93. Still others, influenced by Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality, have trained attention on the ways in which surveillance itself structures subjectivity.3434x See Barbara Cruikshank, The Will to Empower: Democratic Citizens and Other Subjects (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999); Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007). A final body of scholarship points to the ways a mass-mediated public sphere fosters new modes of self-disclosure. As sociologist Larry Gross puts it, “Representation in the mediated ‘reality’ of our mass culture is in itself power.”3535x Larry Gross, “What Is Wrong With This Picture? Lesbian Women and Gay Men on Television,” in Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality, ed. R. Jeffrey Ringer (New York: New York University Press, 1994), 143.

Each of these developments is significant. But so are the lessons about privacy that Americans gleaned from the 1970s—both the failure of legal rights to protect individuals from exposure and the inevitability of classification by opaque bureaucratic operations. Especially important may have been the disjuncture between an official, liberal language of privacy rights and the boundless intrusions of a surveillance society. The Supreme Court and Congress imagined a tangible body and a zone of privacy for the autonomous individual just as citizens were grappling with a virtual body caught up in dossiers and files. In a society that knew so much, where might “zones of privacy” or autonomy be found? Such questions pushed ideas about personal privacy in new and surprising directions. Whereas privacy had once been conceptualized as a retreat from public view, in some domains it was being rethought as a matter of visibility—that is, of very public self-definition.

What if confessional culture is simply an avenue for turning the surveillance society inside out? One commentator writes that “our physical bodies are being shadowed by an increasingly comprehensive ‘data body,’” a body of data, moreover, that “does not just follow but precedes the individual being measured and classified.”3636x Felix Stalder, “Opinion: Privacy Is Not the Antidote to Surveillance,” Surveillance and Society 1, no. 1 (2002), 120. If this is the case, continuous visibility on one’s own terms (whether through ACT UP, reality television, or Facebook) begins to look like a strategy—if not an unproblematic one—of autonomy, a public way of maintaining control over one’s private identity. A culture of self-display may, in this way, be an obscure legacy of the 1970s, the outgrowth of identity politics and new media formats, but also a half-century’s reckoning with data banks and bureaucratic surveillance.