Sarah E. Igo


On her book The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

Cover Interview of April 09, 2018


One thing writing this book convinced me of is that privacy in modern America has not been “private” at all. It has instead functioned as a crucial category of public life. Precisely because privacy in the United States has been billed as a personal possession, outside the realm of the state or politics, its history opens up an illuminating window onto the social strains of modern citizenship.

Privacy became a potent language in American life because it helped bridge the tension between expanding claims to personal inviolability and more sophisticated methods of infringing on it. It mediated the tug of war between the desire for anonymity and the longing for recognition, sometimes even within the same person. It was, in short, a tool for navigating an increasingly knowing society—one in which securing the boundary between one’s private affairs and one’s public identity was a routine, and yet urgent, task.

For this reason, I part ways with those who argue that privacy is “dead” or “over”—a common refrain in the past decade (although it first appeared long before that!). Legal and political thinkers, but also ordinary Americans, have regularly remade privacy to meet new conditions. They have done so by rethinking the boundary between themselves and their society. My guess is that they will do so again, even in our own age of social media and big data.

Who has the right to know? What ought to be publicly known? Who and what should remain unknown? These are the questions that American privacy debates sought to settle—at least provisionally—in the past. They are questions we will likely continue to wrestle with for the foreseeable future. I hope this book will inform the discussion.