Amy GajdaNov 22, 2022
Seek and Hide
The Tangled History of the Right to Privacy
Should everyone have privacy in their personal lives? Can privacy exist in a public place? Is there a right to be left alone, even in the United States?
The battle between an individual’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know has been fought for centuries. You may be surprised to realize that the original framers were sensitive to the importance of privacy interests relating to sexuality and intimate life, but mostly just for the powerful and the privileged.
The founders demanded privacy for all the wrong press-quashing reasons. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis famously promoted First Amendment freedoms but argued strongly for privacy too; and presidents from Thomas Jefferson through Donald Trump confidently hid behind privacy despite the public interest in their lives.
Today privacy seems simultaneously under siege and surging. And that’s doubly dangerous, as author Amy Gajda argues. Too little privacy leaves ordinary people vulnerable to those who deal in and publish soul-crushing secrets. Too much means the famous and infamous can cloak themselves in secrecy and dodge accountability. Seek and Hide: The Tangled History of the Right to Privacy (Viking, 2022) carries us from the very start, when privacy concepts first entered American law and society, to now, when the law allows a Silicon Valley titan to destroy a media site like Gawker out of spite. Muckraker Upton Sinclair, like Nellie Bly before him, pushed the envelope of privacy and propriety and then became a privacy advocate when journalists used the same techniques against him. By the early 2000s we were on our way to today’s full-blown crisis in the digital age, worrying that smartphones, webcams, basement publishers, and the forever internet had erased privacy completely.
Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D. is a psychologist, writer, Middle East television commentator and host of The New Books Network’s Van Leer Jerusalem Series on Ideas. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She's on Twitter @embracingwisdom. She blogs here.