Research News

Vanderbilt’s Sarah Igo places today’s privacy concerns in historical context


What, exactly, is privacy, and how did it become a right to protect or a setting to be managed? Sarah Igo, associate professor of history and author of “The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America,” explains how questions raised by social media manipulation and financial data breaches fit into a long-running privacy debate in the United States centered on how and when individuals ought to be known by the larger society.

Igo explains that privacy did not become a matter of shared concern in the United States until the arrival of the new media of the late nineteenth century, prompting the 1890 publication of “The Right to Privacy” by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. Their essay famously asserted “the right to be let alone” and proposed a legal framework for addressing the invasion of privacy that still informs judicial remedies today.

Brandeis and Warren were responding to the rise of instant photography and tabloid journalism, but fears of having our intimate behaviors and beliefs being made known and potentially co-opted without our consent endure today.

In her book, Igo traces privacy debates in American culture sparked not just by media but also by the creation of social security numbers and other bureaucratic IDs, the patterns of suburban life and architecture, psychological and behavioral research scandals, demands for birth control and reproductive rights, the computerization of government records, the rise of tell-all politics, and fears of mass surveillance.

She also recognizes the competing impulse to self-publicize as a form of self-actualization, with individuals using memoir, reality television, blogging and social media to proactively establish the contours of their public identities. Yet these practices have also been weaponized.

“That’s part of the story about Cambridge Analytica, too,” Igo said. “The scandal has forced Americans to pay attention to the corporations and data brokers that seek to know them through personality tests and other kinds of psychological probes. How are these entities then using the data that people have themselves supplied to persuade those same individuals to buy or vote in certain ways? This kind of psychological manipulation has a long and interesting history–especially in the last half century or so, when the drive for better, deeper, more intimate data about people increasingly created fears about outside agencies getting inside our very selves.”

Igo is available to discuss:

Why it’s so hard to manage our own privacy

“I hesitate to say that people really believe that they’re giving their privacy away. They’re not fully aware, usually, or conscious of the kind of systems that they’re embedded in and in which their information is being taken and repurposed. It takes a scandal like Cambridge Analytica to make people confront the dilemma of their own data out there in the world….I certainly don’t think the problem will be solved by calls for individual responsibility or better personal data practices. It’s bigger than any one individual. Given the forces arrayed against individuals—the scale of today’s data brokers and the extent of today’s data commodification—it’s not a fair fight at all. On the other hand, I don’t think that we can count on corporations to regulate themselves. Why would they?”

How privacy laws can help

“I would encourage a discussion that is now further afoot in Europe than it is in the United States about data collection. This is a conversation not so much about use and sharing, but a hard look at what kind of information we want to gather in the first place, and also whether we want to put the brakes on certain kinds of information, or set expiration dates for certain categories of data.

“The individual rights regime in the United States is not very good at dealing with privacy questions that extend beyond a particular, actionable, individual harm. Nor is a market approach—as in, if people know the risks to their privacy, maybe we can somehow compensate them or monetize the risk. It seems to me that the market solution and the individual-rights solution are probably not the way to go. We may need instead to treat personal information as a public good that must be carefully regulated. And it can’t be regulated by the corporations that profit from it.”

What Americans can do to push change

“While I don’t think we can put the burden of managing privacy on individuals, it is the political responsibility of citizens to pay attention, to force the issue, and to demand better protection for their privacy if they care about it—and of course, not only around data.”