In America’s Panopticon

Always Watching

The linked history of privacy and surveillance in America.


When the Social Security program launched in the mid-1930s, it was the concept of the SSN—the Social Security number, that unique identifier tagged to each American citizen—that captured the public imagination as much as the new entitlement itself. For opponents of Social Security, the number was evidence of state overreach. Republicans compared it to the Nazi registration laws of 1933 and warned that citizens would be forced to wear dog tags stamped with it. Meanwhile, New Deal Democrats did everything they could to avoid the image of fascist regimentation. Anxious about the dog-tag charge in particular, the Social Security Board abandoned its original plan to issue SSNs on metal tokens, instead opting for the flimsy paper cards we still use today.

What both Republicans and Democrats missed in these debates, however, was how enthusiastically citizens would embrace their SSNs. Viewing the number as proof of economic security and political belonging, Americans worried about what would happen if their card was damaged or they forgot their number. A small industry cropped up to offer more durable alternatives to the paper card: Consumers could purchase bronze-plated SSNs or birthstone rings emblazoned with their nine digits. The tattoo industry in the 1930s also experienced a boom, with some people opting to have their SSN inked onto their arm or chest. If the Social Security number posed a risk to privacy by making citizens more visible to the administrative state, this was a risk that, for much of the SSN’s history, seemed worth taking.

In her new book, The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America, historian Sarah Igo uses examples like the SSN to examine how generations of Americans have responded to new forms of public visibility. From her engaging and wide-ranging study, a central lesson emerges: Technologies of surveillance that seem relatively innocuous at first can take 20, or 40, or 100 years to reveal their more insidious potential—by which point they have long since insinuated themselves into our daily lives, so that there is often very little we can do about them.

Americans in the 1930s had good reason to embrace their SSNs; they also could not have imagined the wealth of personal data that would be tied to those numbers by the 1970s, when the American Medical Association worried about the use of the Social Security number in health records, or by 2014, when Americans concerned about surveillance cited their SSN as being particularly sensitive. All this poses a vital question for today’s left: How can contemporary progressives, the inheritors of the New Deal, promote new social entitlements but avoid laying the groundwork for a later escalation of surveillance?

The history of privacy in America has always comprised two distinct histories: one about the rise of self-disclosure, the other about the rise of surveillance. In The Known Citizen, Igo sets out to show that those who oppose increasing surveillance have often—but not always—defended privacy on egalitarian grounds, seeking to protect the personal rights of immigrants, women, people of color, and workers from state and corporate power. Meanwhile, those who oppose increasing self-disclosure have typically defended privacy on more conservative grounds, seeking to preserve bourgeois conceptions of propriety and traditional (often hierarchical) gender and social relations.

The concept of privacy made its first formal appearance in American law in 1890, when Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis published their famous essay “The Right to Privacy” in the Harvard Law Review. The Boston lawyers were spurred to action by the growth of the tabloid press, which reported on the personal affairs of Gilded Age families. But although they were fiercely defensive of their own privacy, Warren, Brandeis, and other members of their class would show little concern for that of the less privileged. When immigrants, radicals, and union members were subjected to new policing techniques in the early 20th century, few distinguished jurists spoke up in defense of their legal right to privacy. Indeed, it was only in 1920—when cabbies went on strike to protest a mandatory fingerprinting program—that such a legal right was claimed by members of the working classes. Needless to say, those refusing to be fingerprinted were defending privacy on rather different grounds than Warren and Brandeis; where the latter were worried about scandal and impropriety, the workers were worried about their political and economic freedom.

Those who followed Warren and Brandeis’s example in using privacy as a cudgel to protect propriety were scandalized, Igo tells us, by the birth of reality television in the 1970s and ’80s and by the tell-all memoir boom of the 1990s; they became apoplectic about the rise of contemporary social media. Although these anxieties evolved across the decades, they retained the bourgeois sensibility of Warren and Brandeis’s era. Opponents of self-disclosure were concerned about opening the sacred space of the middle-class home to television cameras; they fretted about improper self-revelation and photographs shared “in poor taste.”

These privacy proponents also retained the patriarchal gender politics of an earlier time, and many on the left chafed against efforts to protect privacy for that reason. American elites in the late 19th century, for example, complained about the circulation of photographs of their “wife, daughter, mother, or sister,” leading Congress to introduce a so-called “Bill to Protect Ladies” in 1888. It was this paternalistic regulation that feminists sought to counter in the 1960s, retaking control over how women shared their own stories and with whom. The LGBTQ movement also seized on this rhetoric, arguing that queer people should break the social taboos that kept them in the shadows and in the closet.

For both women and LGBTQ Americans, self-disclosure became a radical act in the latter half of the 20th century. It was a way to celebrate their own experiences and identities, in defiance of social forces that would rather silence or demean them. In feminist consciousness-raising groups, self-disclosure also allowed participants to recognize their personal trauma as part of a collective experience of political oppression—a practice that has since become vital to many identity-based movements, including #MeToo. Today, when we are tempted to critique new forms of self-disclosure readily shared on social media and on television, we would do well to remember that, historically speaking, self-revelation has been a powerful tool of liberation, while anxieties about “oversharing” have typically aided conservative cultural politics.

While Americans wrangled over questions of privacy and propriety, disputes about the limits of government surveillance continued from the days of the 1920 cabbie strike, leaving a more complex political legacy. Corporate surveillance has consistently troubled working Americans, but state surveillance was viewed more ambiguously by many, at least in the early 20th century. Because the government often combined an offer of aid or redistribution with new oversight or police powers, state surveillance was presented as a necessary trade-off for the increasingly known citizen.

In the 1930s, Igo argues, the average American had relatively few qualms about enrolling in a new government program that offered economic security, even if it meant forgoing a considerable amount of privacy. In fact, workers who expressed early concerns about the Social Security number were often more worried about how their personal information might be misused by their employers than by the state. Women who lied about their age and marital status to evade sexist hiring practices worried that their employers could use their SSN to ferret out the truth. Similarly, ethnic and religious minorities who had changed their names to avoid prejudice worried that their real names would be provided to their bosses through their SSN, and union members worried that employers could find out their political and labor affiliations. These workers were right to be suspicious of their bosses, of course: When the Social Security program was launched, many employers circulated invasive questionnaires that asked about union membership, religious affiliation, and personal matters, falsely claiming that these forms were required to receive federal benefits. Initially, then, it was not governmental but private uses of the SSN that seemed most threatening to individual privacy.

Fear of government surveillance would become more widespread in the 1960s—the decade when a “right to privacy” was first guaranteed by the Supreme Court. In the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut, Justice William O. Douglas used the rhetoric of privacy to defend the use of birth control by married couples. The decision was an obvious victory for reproductive rights, but, as Igo notes, Douglas buried its radical potential in the language of bourgeois propriety. The state, he argued, had no business invading the precious sanctuaries of domesticity. In a particularly memorable phrase, he asked: “Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives?”

Despite these shortcomings, the Griswold decision did inspire Americans of all backgrounds to insist on their own right to privacy. Welfare-rights activists would make a particularly crucial intervention by exposing the two-tiered privacy regime at the heart of the American welfare state: While middle-class citizens collecting Social Security still had relative privacy, those collecting welfare were placed under intense surveillance. Female welfare recipients were even subjected to surprise nighttime raids to check if they were “consorting with men.” Igo emphasizes the powerful irony here: In the Griswold decision, Douglas conjured a fantastic image of policemen invading the bedrooms of middle-class couples; meanwhile, a much more literal version of this scene was playing out in the bedrooms of poor women across the country. As President Lyndon Johnson struggled to position his War on Poverty as the descendant of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Americans were becoming increasingly aware of the surveillance that often went hand in hand with public relief, and how this surveillance was directed more toward some than others.

Concerns about state surveillance would further escalate in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal brought trust in government to a new low. At the same time, the rapid growth of record-keeping, data collection, and computing technology made government surveillance all the easier. The government could now not only access discrete facts about citizens, but could cross-reference those facts to produce a near-complete account of someone’s background or daily life. And at the center of every citizen’s government dossier, of course, was their Social Security number. Americans had some misgivings about the SSN even in the 1930s. But by the 1970s, these fears had grown exponentially: Now many Americans were worried about the vast web of personal information—easily recalled, cross-referenced, and shared electronically—linked to their SSN.

Igo’s analysis of state surveillance from the New Deal through Watergate is remarkably thorough and insightful. For this reason, it is surprising (and disappointing) that she devotes so little time to the post–9/11 surveillance regime. The book’s final chapter addresses the confessional culture of the 1990s, and its conclusion discusses contemporary privacy debates. Igo skips over the early 2000s, however, thus avoiding mention of several key subjects, including the Patriot Act and the FBI’s surveillance of Muslim Americans. Perhaps Igo considered these events too recent to be “history,” but their omission is nevertheless glaring—especially because a discussion of surveillance and privacy in our own time might usefully bring questions of domestic state surveillance into dialogue with the global operations of American power.

Despite this notable omission, Igo’s conclusion does apply much of the insight gained by her history to the privacy debates going on today. Americans have long worried about collaboration between different surveillance regimes, and today, communication between the law-enforcement agencies and Silicon Valley permits an increasingly total view of the individual citizen. In the 1960s, best-selling books like The Privacy Invaders and The Naked Society exposed the institutional forces that threatened American privacy; in recent years, popular titles like How to Be Invisible, Hack-Proof Your Life Now!, and The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy have offered tips and tricks for avoiding increasingly unavoidable forms of surveillance.

Igo suggests that this self-help discourse can sometimes shade into chastisement, as though those who post too much on social media are responsible for their own surveillance by the NSA. Instead of viewing the problem of privacy as a personal one, we should understand it as one with a political answer. It might be useful to encrypt your e-mail, but without building popular movements capable of challenging surveillance, little is likely to change.

We will also need these movements because the forms of surveillance yet to come will almost certainly be more menacing to our privacy than the ones that exist today. Take, for example, websites like and 23andMe. Before sending your DNA swab overseas in the mail, you might pause to imagine the possible misuses of your genetic information. In that moment, you might perhaps envision pharmaceutical giants mining the data (which has happened) or law enforcement using it to solve cold cases (which has also happened). These might seem like acceptable trade-offs, provided you are happy to contribute anonymously to pharmaceutical research and are reasonably certain that you never left your DNA at a crime scene. You would probably never guess, however, that you might be contacted by Canadian immigration authorities seeking to deport one of your distant relatives (which, yes, has also happened). In short, to make informed choices about privacy and surveillance today, we may need both a long-range historical perspective—like the one Igo provides—and a willingness to engage in some wild speculation.

Contemporary progressives advocate a wide range of proposals that would bolster individual privacy, even when that is not the chief aim. Calls to reform, reimagine, or even abolish institutions like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the police, prisons, and the military would all result in decreased surveillance powers. But liberals and leftists also advocate new social programs that would provide greater access to health care, education, housing, child care, and the like—vital programs that might have the unintended effect of drawing citizens even further into a web of government surveillance.

Progressives hope to use state power to create a more just and equitable society, but they also fear the erosions of privacy that something as simple as a Social Security number eventually made possible. For this reason, we need to couple our calls for increased state programs with a forceful opposition to the institutions and practices that threaten our privacy. We must resist contemporary surveillance regimes, while also envisioning new mechanisms for democratic control over the uses of our data. Ultimately, when it comes to privacy, we should prepare even for modes of surveillance that are currently unimaginable. If Igo’s study teaches us anything, it’s that the unimaginable has happened many times before.

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