Privacy Settings

Privacy Settings

Today, we are watched as never before, through surreptitious governmental data collection and through corporate profiles of our desires and habits. Yet we also divulge private matters aggressively, seeking freedom through publicity.

Unemployed lumber worker goes with his wife to the bean harvest. Note social security number tattooed on his arm. (Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress)

In August 1939, the photographer Dorothea Lange, on assignment for the government, came across a couple in West Stayton, Oregon, making their way to the bean harvest. Lange was a skilled portraitist; three years before, she’d taken the iconic photograph of the Depression, “Migrant Mother.” Perhaps she saw similar visual potential here. If so, she was right. The photograph she took was a striking study in contrast—a man proudly poses shirtless while his wife, incongruously dressed in heels and a bracelet, looks back at Lange wearily and with just a hint of an eye-roll.

But who were they? The photograph’s title described them only as “unemployed lumber worker” and “wife.” Lange was famous for humanizing the poor, but she rarely named them. It wasn’t until the seventies that the woman in “Migrant Mother,” whom Lange listed only as a “destitute pea picker” and “mother of seven children,” was publicly identified as Florence Owens Thompson, despite Thompson having insisted it was her for decades.

In the case of the Oregon couple that Lange met in 1939, identification is easier. The lumber worker posed with his right bicep out, showing off his tattoo. “SSN 535-07-5248,” it read—his social security number. He was Thomas Ursel Cave, born in 1912 in Condon, Oregon. From government records, we know his height, weight, education level, military service, birth and death dates, parents’ names, and marital history. The woman with him was probably Annie Cave, born Annie Bloom. She died in 2000 and was buried in Portland.

Social security was above all a welfare program, but it was also the first time the U.S. government issued identification numbers to a large part of the populace. For many recipients, these were the first numeric identifiers they’d ever had, the first string of digits they’d ever been asked to memorize. Unsurprisingly, some found it unnerving. “Your personal life will be laid bare,” one paper warned, imagining the government surveillance that might follow. But others, such as Thomas Ursel Cave, saw it differently. They inked their numbers on their bodies—tattoo parlors reported booming business—or had them engraved on rings, bracelets, or denture plates. For them, state registration wasn’t something to fear. It was a way to be known.

How much to conceal, how much to reveal—these are vexed questions today, when our data is being comprehensively plundered and we are served up (or serve ourselves up) to the gaze of governments, corporations, and our peers. But such questions were just as pressing in the past, as historian Sarah E. Igo shows in her luminous new book, The Known Citizen. For a century and a half, people in this country have been arguing at high volume about privacy. They’ve argued about sex, data, crime, fame, science, technology, advertising, the state, the mind, and, ultimately, the boundaries of the self. The debates have kept going, Igo shows, precisely because they aren’t easily resolved. There is such a thing as too little privacy, she notes. But there is also such a thing as too much of it.

As a legal matter, privacy has been around for centuries, and for much of that time referred mainly to the right of gentlemen to have their homes and correspondence shielded from scrutiny. Were an outsider to inadvertently glimpse domestic intimacies, “honor would require him to turn from them,” the minister Henry Ward Beecher advised, and keep them “locked in a sacred silence.”

Yet late nineteenth-century technologies had a way of unlocking that silence. The commercial typewriter (1870), the microphone (1876), and the Dictaphone (1889) sped up the flow of information. The truly revolutionary technology, though, was photography, particularly the instantaneous photography enabled by the “snap” camera introduced in the 1880s. Before, to be photographed, you had to sit for your portrait, remaining immobile for the duration of the camera’s exposure time, which could be minutes. With the new camera, photography captured not just a moment but an instant.

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Snap photography changed what cameras could do and where they could go. The police reporter Jacob Riis found that by augmenting his camera with a flashbulb, he could pry into the dark corners where slum dwellers lived and worked—his pictures formed the basis for the classic muckraking exposé of poverty, How the Other Half Lives (1890). The rich, too, found their haunts invaded and their private encounters captured and circulated.

Most vulnerable of all were women, whom photographers shot unwittingly on trains, on the street, and on beaches, where they could be photographed emerging from the water. Women’s images sold papers, and they sold products. When President Grover Cleveland married his legal ward, a twenty-one-year-old woman named Frances Folsom, advertisers used photographs of her—without her permission—to hawk soaps, pianos, and cigarettes.

The age of instant photography was marked by a keen desire to see all. Believing sunshine to be the best disinfectant, progressives kicked down doors, metaphorical and literal, to expose corruption, crime, lynching, child labor, contaminated food, unsafe working conditions, and vicious poverty. Yet, at the same time, they were the first to articulate a legal “right to privacy.” As jurists Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis argued in 1890, the circulation of an unwanted photograph could bring “mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.” People had a right to protection against exposure. They had a right to an “inviolate personality.”

Plus ça change. It’s impossible to read any chapter of Igo’s book and not see the present day reflected in it. Yet there’s one moment that resounds with special force. That moment is Watergate—those charged months when Richard Nixon’s presidency unraveled. It was, Igo shows, the episode that established the terms of our own times.

Even before Nixon’s transgressions became public, the levies were straining to hold back the flood of private information. In 1971, the Boston Women’s Health Collective published Our Bodies, Ourselves, an unabashedly confessional, sexual, and norm-bashing manual of liberation. The next year, 1972, the Nixon administration began bugging the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) headquarters, and Alex Comfort published his brazen The Joy of Sex, which featured drawn-from-life illustrations (to help get the illustrators started, Comfort sent in Polaroids of himself having sex with his wife’s best friend). Nixon’s “plumbers” got caught breaking into the DNC headquarters to repair their wiretap the same week that the X-rated film Deep Throat was released. That film was the public debut of both the titular sex act and the pornographic trope of the “money shot.” And it was a major hit, breaking out of the adult-only theaters and probably grossing more than $100 million (over $600 million today, which would put it not far behind Black Panther’s domestic gross).

The following year, 1973, saw the Watergate hearings, and it was also when PBS ran An American Family, a twelve-episode series about a California family that had allowed documentarians to follow them around, film them at home, and tap their phones. The anthropologist Margaret Mead described it as a “a new kind of art form,” as “new and significant as the invention of drama or the novel.” Mead was right: this was the birth of reality television.

Like Deep Throat, An American Family was staggeringly popular, drawing upward of 10 million weekly viewers—the largest audience that public television had had in the entire decade. “What nerve have we touched?” wondered Pat Loud, the mother and star of the show. The Loud family (it’s hard to imagine a more fitting name) bathed in the attention, and they delivered spectacle in turn. One of the Loud sons, Lance, came out on air, becoming the first openly gay television personality. The series ended with Pat asking her husband of twenty-one years for a divorce.

A weird feedback loop seemed to connect these onscreen happenings to the Oval Office. It emerged that the president had been staging a reality show himself, wiretapping the White House and bugging his enemies. Nixon’s overarching concern was leaks, but to guard his own secrets he stole those of others, including having his plumbers break into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in the hopes of gleaning damaging information about the man who had given the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. The whole thing proved to be an auto-petard hoisting, as Nixon’s own recordings were made public, putting the backroom machinations of the presidency on full display. A re-broadcast of An American Family played throughout the Watergate hearings, and the anonymous leaker who fed the Washington Post damaging information was dubbed “Deep Throat.”

Watergate poured a strange brew of paranoia and liberation. Most notably, the event left in its wake a deep suspicion of bureaucracies and surveillance. The seventies were when Michel Foucault’s depiction of modernity as the Panopticon colonized U.S. academia, when filmmakers served fare like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), about a surveillance expert driven mad, and Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), about the CIA murdering to preserve its sordid secrets. In Nixon’s aftermath, legislators passed the Privacy Act and FERPA in 1974, which protected individuals’ records from misuse by the federal government and schools, respectively. “Too many people have been spied upon by too many government agencies,” a senate committee concluded.

Yet, just as people sought privacy from the state, they sought to spill their own secrets, as the Louds had. As feminists and gay activists in particular saw it, liberation came through disclosure, especially disclosure on topics considered shameful such as abortion, rape, and homosexuality.

No one mastered the new candor better than Betty Ford, who arrived with her husband Gerald as part of the Nixon clean-up. At a time when breasts and cancer were both delicate topics, Ford spoke openly about her hospitalization for a mastectomy. “There had been so much cover-up during Watergate,” she explained, that “rather than continue this traditional silence about breast cancer, we felt we had to be very public.” She was public, too, about sex with her husband, her children’s possible drug use, and, with time, her own addiction to alcohol and painkillers. These were touchy subjects, yet Ford faced few sanctions for holding forth on them—just the opposite, in fact. Surveys suggest that she was more popular not only than her husband but than any previous First Lady in the history of opinion polling.

It’s easy to think that we’re living through a farcical recapitulation of the Nixon presidency—“Stupid Watergate,” as John Oliver calls it. Yet, with Igo’s book in hand, we can identify what is happening with more precision. Donald Trump isn’t Nixon redivivus so much as he is a child of the Nixon years. He was in his twenties when the drama unfolded, and it appears to have marked him.

The first thing to notice is how consumed Trump is by the paranoia Watergate unleashed. He turned the fear of the state deftly against Hillary Clinton, whose use of a private email server in breach of federal regulations was grist for Trump’s mill. “There has never been so many lies, so much deception,” he moaned during the 2016 campaign. But Trump’s dark fantasies of governmental intrusions did not end with his inauguration. As president, he has accused Barack Obama of “wiretapping” Trump Tower and the FBI of planting a spy in his campaign (“This is bigger than Watergate!”). Like Nixon, Trump is obsessed with leaks, taking them as evidence of a deep-state governmental conspiracy against him.

Yet Trump is less Richard Nixon, a canny deceiver, than he is Betty Ford. It’s fitting that Trump’s preferred medium should be Twitter, and that an important source of his fame should have been a reality-television show. For his aides, Trump’s confessional urges are maddening, as it seems he cannot approach a microphone without veering wildly off-script and voicing some private thought or desire. But candor has always been one of Trump’s chief virtues, his apparent willingness to say what others won’t.

Surveillance, confession, reality television—and most recently, as if on cue, pornography. Of the many scandals Trump faces, the Stormy Daniels affair is one of the few that wounded him deeply, though tellingly the damage has come less from the affair itself than from his inept attempt to purchase Daniels’s silence. It will be a triumph for Igo’s analysis if this precarious presidency is ultimately brought down by a nondisclosure agreement.

The dilemmas of disclosure—the irreconcilable desires for privacy and recognition—don’t just haunt Trump. They haunt us, too. Today, we are watched as never before, through surreptitious governmental data collection and through corporate profiles of our desires and habits. Yet we also divulge private matters aggressively, seeking freedom through publicity.

In principle, we could seek balance: limits to corporate data-gathering, measures to ensure a transparent government that respects its citizens’ privacy, attacks on the ability of the powerful to cover up their transgressions, and a rollback of the stigmas that have relegated our desires, traumas, and deviance to shameful secrecy. There’s no single privacy setting for a society, and there’s nothing inconsistent about supporting #MeToo while opposing the NSA’s warrantless harvesting of metadata.

Still, in equilibrating, we have to deal with the fact that the forces of publicity seem far more powerful than those protecting privacy. Edward Snowden’s revelations were heard and believed, but they were met with a weary shrug. No politicians lost their jobs over it, nor were the media behemoths that served up their customers’ data to the state damaged. The issue barely arose in the 2016 elections. Mark Zuckerberg, more recently, has been reprimanded for allowing Trump’s consultant, Cambridge Analytica, to plunder Facebook users’ data. But without a broader movement to reclaim citizens’ privacy, it’s unlikely things will go further than that.

By contrast, there are serious, energetic campaigns to punish the keepers of secrets. #MeToo has destroyed powerful men, and it has punished them for silencing women as well as for harassing or assaulting them. The movement has fed on disclosure, on the willingness of victims to testify to their trauma. Similarly, Black Lives Matter has exposed police brutality and racial harassment, and it has done so in part by virtue of the ubiquity of recording devices. More cameras, not fewer, is the demand.

It is a demand that Thomas Ursel Cave, baring his chest and flashing his social security number at the photographer, would have understood. We want privacy. But we also, like Cave, yearn to be seen.

Daniel Immerwahr teaches history at Northwestern University. He is the author of Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development (Harvard, 2015) and the forthcoming How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).