Book Review: American Privacy, by Frederick S. Lane

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From colonial times to the present, the British-American notion of a right to personal privacy has been inextricably linked to the belief that one’s home and one’s sealed correspondence are both off-limits to unwanted intrusion. In American Privacy: The 400-Year History of Our Most Contested Right, author and attorney Frederick S. Lane tells the story of the right to privacy, and the threats to that right, from the days of the colonial postal system to the days of the Internet.

The Assault on Privacy by Government

Governments, by their very nature, seek to control the behavior of their citizens. Ideally, they do so for the common good, to provide every citizen “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In practice, of course, governments usually stray far from this ideal; and so responsible citizens try to draw limits around governmental power.

In American history, with regard to the right to privacy, the most explicit statement of those limits is the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…” Lane’s book is, in large measure, an account of how the Fourth Amendment has been used (and misused) from its inception up to the current disputes over warrantless electronic eavesdropping.

The Assault on Privacy by Businesses

The more a business knows about its prospective customers, the better it can persuade them to purchase its goods or services. It is thus to any business’s advantage to collect and store as much personal information as it can. In many cases, customers supply this information willingly, in exchange (presumably) for such benefits as special pricing, extended service, etc.

Increasingly, though, personal information is obtained without the customer’s specific consent: mailing lists may be sold or traded, personal data collected by government agencies may be publicly available, etc. Lane details many ways in which this occurs and notes the recent growth of consumer protection organizations which attempt to limit the spread of personal information, or at least educate the public about how to do so.

The Assault on Privacy by the People

The Internet plays a large role in the story of American privacy, and throughout his book Lane describes the ways in which the conveniences the Internet introduces are balanced by the privacy which is given up to obtain those conveniences. For example, most people who shop online allow websites to store “cookies” on their computers, so that they do not have to type in a user name and password each time they visit a site.

Many of them may not realize, however, the extent to which that convenience allows personal information about them not only to be spread literally around the world, but also to be preserved online virtually forever.

Privacy and the Internet

Lane concludes his book by speculating whether “privacy” even has a meaning in the age of the Internet. The explosive growth of “social networking,” the ubiquity of “smart phones” with their cameras and always-on connections, the eagerness with which many people “publish” their most private thoughts and activities – combined with the often unknown or overlooked fact that the Internet never forgets – may have rendered the idea of privacy obsolete.

What does this mean for our future, both individually and as a society? Frederick Lane’s carefully researched and clearly written book performs a great service by posing this important question and giving readers the context in which to consider it.