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Seek and Hide: The Tangled History of the Right to Privacy

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The surprising story of the fitful development of the right to privacy—and its battle against the public’s right to know—across American history. There is no hotter topic than the desire to constrain tech companies like Facebook from exploiting our personal data, or to keep Alexa from spying on you. Privacy has also provoked constitutional crisis (presidential tax returns) The surprising story of the fitful development of the right to privacy—and its battle against the public’s right to know—across American history. There is no hotter topic than the desire to constrain tech companies like Facebook from exploiting our personal data, or to keep Alexa from spying on you. Privacy has also provoked constitutional crisis (presidential tax returns) while Justice Clarence Thomas seeks to remove the protection of journalists who publish the truth about public officials. Is privacy under deadly siege, or actually surging? The answer is both, but that’s doubly dangerous, as legal expert Amy Gajda proves. Too little privacy means that unwanted exposure by those who deal in and publish secrets. Too much means the famous and infamous can cloak themselves in secrecy and shut down inquiry, and return us to the time before movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo opened eyes to hidden truths. We are not the first generation to grapple with that clash, to worry that new technologies and fraying social mores pose an existential threat to our privacy while we recognize the value in knowing certain things. Seek and Hide carries us from the Gilded Age, when the concept of a right to privacy by name first entered American law and society, to now, when the law allows a Silicon Valley titan like Peter Thiel to destroy a media site like Gawker out of spite. Disturbingly, she shows that the original concern was not about intrusions into the lives of ordinary folks, but that the wealthy and powerful should not have their dignity assaulted by the wretches of the popular press like Nellie Bly. Alexander Hamilton argued both sides of the issue depending on what it was being known, and about whom. The modern right is anchored in a landmark 1890 essay by Louis Brandeis before he joined the Supreme Court, where he continued his instrumental support for the “privacies of life.” In the 1960s, privacy interests gave way to the glory days of investigative reporting in the era of Vietnam and Watergate. By the 1990s we were on our way to today’s full-blown crisis of privacy in the digital age, from websites to webcams and the Forever Internet erasing our “right to be forgotten.” Or does it? We stand today at another crossroads in which privacy is widely believed to be under assault from every direction by the anything-for-clicks business model and technology that can record and report our every move. This timely book reminds us to remember the lessons of history: that such a seemingly innocent call can also be used to restrict essential freedoms to a democracy—because it already has.


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The surprising story of the fitful development of the right to privacy—and its battle against the public’s right to know—across American history. There is no hotter topic than the desire to constrain tech companies like Facebook from exploiting our personal data, or to keep Alexa from spying on you. Privacy has also provoked constitutional crisis (presidential tax returns) The surprising story of the fitful development of the right to privacy—and its battle against the public’s right to know—across American history. There is no hotter topic than the desire to constrain tech companies like Facebook from exploiting our personal data, or to keep Alexa from spying on you. Privacy has also provoked constitutional crisis (presidential tax returns) while Justice Clarence Thomas seeks to remove the protection of journalists who publish the truth about public officials. Is privacy under deadly siege, or actually surging? The answer is both, but that’s doubly dangerous, as legal expert Amy Gajda proves. Too little privacy means that unwanted exposure by those who deal in and publish secrets. Too much means the famous and infamous can cloak themselves in secrecy and shut down inquiry, and return us to the time before movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo opened eyes to hidden truths. We are not the first generation to grapple with that clash, to worry that new technologies and fraying social mores pose an existential threat to our privacy while we recognize the value in knowing certain things. Seek and Hide carries us from the Gilded Age, when the concept of a right to privacy by name first entered American law and society, to now, when the law allows a Silicon Valley titan like Peter Thiel to destroy a media site like Gawker out of spite. Disturbingly, she shows that the original concern was not about intrusions into the lives of ordinary folks, but that the wealthy and powerful should not have their dignity assaulted by the wretches of the popular press like Nellie Bly. Alexander Hamilton argued both sides of the issue depending on what it was being known, and about whom. The modern right is anchored in a landmark 1890 essay by Louis Brandeis before he joined the Supreme Court, where he continued his instrumental support for the “privacies of life.” In the 1960s, privacy interests gave way to the glory days of investigative reporting in the era of Vietnam and Watergate. By the 1990s we were on our way to today’s full-blown crisis of privacy in the digital age, from websites to webcams and the Forever Internet erasing our “right to be forgotten.” Or does it? We stand today at another crossroads in which privacy is widely believed to be under assault from every direction by the anything-for-clicks business model and technology that can record and report our every move. This timely book reminds us to remember the lessons of history: that such a seemingly innocent call can also be used to restrict essential freedoms to a democracy—because it already has.

30 review for Seek and Hide: The Tangled History of the Right to Privacy

  1. 4 out of 5

    Philip

    I think a few quotes might do a good job of summarizing the issues covered by Gajda in "Seek and Hide." Namely: "[P]rotection for the powerful is a familiar theme in the history of the right to privacy." "When we say freedom of the press, we can't possibly mean it in an absolute sense. Because total press freedom would be, emphatically, Pandora's box. The source of every evil." "Where does public interest stop and the right to privacy begin? What type of information do we all have the right to kno I think a few quotes might do a good job of summarizing the issues covered by Gajda in "Seek and Hide." Namely: "[P]rotection for the powerful is a familiar theme in the history of the right to privacy." "When we say freedom of the press, we can't possibly mean it in an absolute sense. Because total press freedom would be, emphatically, Pandora's box. The source of every evil." "Where does public interest stop and the right to privacy begin? What type of information do we all have the right to know?" The book is a well-written history chronicling the tug of war between freedom of speech and privacy in the United States. And the focus really is on history - albeit history that is very much relevant today - to the detriment of a more extensive discussion of the state of the struggle and the issues today. As is to be expected by both the subject and the author (a Law School Professor at Tulane), it's a book that leans heavily on U.S. case law. If you have no or little interest in either, this book is not for you (Full disclosure, this narrow-minded focus weighed down my enjoyment of the book somewhat). There is very little discussion of generally applicable ethics, here, that doesn't also pertain directly to specific legal cases. But if it sounds right up your alley, I can easily imagine this being a four star - maybe even a five star - star read. Now, although some of the author's opinions shine through in the writing, she doesn't really have any answers to that last quote above. It's not that kind of book. Instead, it highlights some of the interests behind the legal struggle it chronicles. It illustrates how the issues have evolved in conjunction with- and in opposition to each other. It contrasts and compares pros and cons. And it highlights the onion-like layers that are considered in the creation of policy and law surrounding these thorny, sometimes diametrically opposed, issues. It is a highly relevant discussion. Because, as she says, "[I]f you're creeped out about the amount of information that's available on public databases [...] from the 1880s, and about the fact that a stranger can peruse all of it [...], consider what they know about each of us today, who has access to all that data, and what will become of it in the future."

  2. 5 out of 5

    BookStarRaven

    Quick Take: The legal questions of “the right to privacy” vs. “the right to know” is ongoing, complex and has far reaching consequences for us today. Seek and Hide by Amy Gajda explores the legal precedent “the right to privacy” both through historical and current legal cases. All the way back to the founding of the United States, the “right to privacy” has been a concern. Powerful people like Thomas Jefferson successfully kept his scandalous relationship with his slave Sally out of the newspaper Quick Take: The legal questions of “the right to privacy” vs. “the right to know” is ongoing, complex and has far reaching consequences for us today. Seek and Hide by Amy Gajda explores the legal precedent “the right to privacy” both through historical and current legal cases. All the way back to the founding of the United States, the “right to privacy” has been a concern. Powerful people like Thomas Jefferson successfully kept his scandalous relationship with his slave Sally out of the newspapers due to his supposed “right to privacy.” This book follows the legal history of privacy from the founding of the United States today. According to Gajda, “…protection for the powerful is a familiar theme in the history of the right to privacy.” Gajda walks through some of the most influential cases that regard “the right to privacy.” While some of the stories are winding and hard to follow, I still enjoyed hearing about the scandalous dramas of the past. It seems like humanity hasn’t really changed much in the past hundred years - everyone loves a bit of juicy gossip! The right to privacy is a complex legal issue divided between an individual’s “right to privacy” and the public’s “right to know.” I found many of the cases frustrating and unfair when it seemed the media could publish explicit information about someone at the expense of their privacy and dignity. I felt angry at many of the legal outcomes of cases in this book. Can we not find a better balance between the “right to privacy” and freedom of speech? Right now, it’s pretty much anything goes no matter how hateful, revealing, or indecent. Here are some questions relevant to “the right of privacy law” today: should websites be held liable for the content others post on their platform? With cameras on many doorsteps, what should be kept private? This book is especially relevant today given that Roe Vs. Wade was made on the precedent of “the right to privacy.” If you’re interested in this topic or privacy issues, I can wholeheartedly recommend this book. Rating: 4/5 Genre: Non-Fiction/History Check it out on Instagram HERE!

  3. 5 out of 5

    The Atlantic

    "'Seek and Hide' focuses on a specific kind of privacy conflict: the propriety of publicizing true but intimate or embarrassing facts about a person. That sort of shame-inducing exposure may sound almost passé in the era of Twitter and TMZ. We’re by now used to personal missteps forever preserved online, innuendo circulating on the web, doxing as a weapon of rhetorical war. We take for granted the constant prying that seems to come with a life hooked up to the internet. But the history of disput "'Seek and Hide' focuses on a specific kind of privacy conflict: the propriety of publicizing true but intimate or embarrassing facts about a person. That sort of shame-inducing exposure may sound almost passé in the era of Twitter and TMZ. We’re by now used to personal missteps forever preserved online, innuendo circulating on the web, doxing as a weapon of rhetorical war. We take for granted the constant prying that seems to come with a life hooked up to the internet. But the history of disputes over press invasions serves as a kind of barometer, revealing the cyclical nature of privacy’s fortunes. It also highlights the persistent disparities in whose privacy has mattered to lawmakers and courts. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/...

  4. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    With the potential repeal of Roe v. Wade looming in the Supreme Court, I had anticipated that Amy Gajda's book, which was published in mid-April of this year, would be sadly out-0f-date. But this was far from the case. The history of the "Right of Privacy" Gadja sets forth follows an uncertain, murky and twisted path. To understand the complexities involved, her book should be required reading. Especially now. With the potential repeal of Roe v. Wade looming in the Supreme Court, I had anticipated that Amy Gajda's book, which was published in mid-April of this year, would be sadly out-0f-date. But this was far from the case. The history of the "Right of Privacy" Gadja sets forth follows an uncertain, murky and twisted path. To understand the complexities involved, her book should be required reading. Especially now.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Andréa

    Note: I accessed a digital review copy of this book through Edelweiss.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Tonya Woodbury

    Gajda traces the history of the sometimes contradictory rights of privacy and freedom of the press throughout the history of the United States. The first part of the book focuses on the historic development of the right of privacy and emphasizes how it seemed to be predominantly used by powerful people to conceal aspects of their personal lives that would have made them look really bad if revealed. She talks specifically about President Grover Cleaveland and his amorous affairs, including a poss Gajda traces the history of the sometimes contradictory rights of privacy and freedom of the press throughout the history of the United States. The first part of the book focuses on the historic development of the right of privacy and emphasizes how it seemed to be predominantly used by powerful people to conceal aspects of their personal lives that would have made them look really bad if revealed. She talks specifically about President Grover Cleaveland and his amorous affairs, including a possible illegitimate child, that were all kept from the view of the public and press by his assertion of the right to privacy. No such right is provided in the Constitution, but over a century of judicial rulings, and in some cases, legislation, has shaped this right. The later part of the book focuses more on modern day issues such as data privacy rights and social media. It was most interesting to me to see how the right to privacy has changed almost entirely based on how the courts have ruled. They were much more privacy-protecting it seemed around the late 1900s and early 20th Century, but then a shift happens and the freedom of the press triumphs over privacy for several decades. Finally, in the 21st century, we’ve seen courts begin to rule more in favor of privacy again. Gajda doesn’t really explore why this shift happens, but it’s interesting to consider. Although I found it a bit dry and repetitive in places and thought that the historical review could have been abbreviated, I found this book really informative and would recommend.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Tonya Woodbury

    Gajda traces the history of the sometimes contradictory rights of privacy and freedom of the press throughout the history of the United States. The first part of the book focuses on the historic development of the right of privacy and emphasizes how it seemed to be predominantly used by powerful people to conceal aspects of their personal lives that would have made them look really bad if revealed. She talks specifically about President Grover Cleaveland and his amorous affairs, including a poss Gajda traces the history of the sometimes contradictory rights of privacy and freedom of the press throughout the history of the United States. The first part of the book focuses on the historic development of the right of privacy and emphasizes how it seemed to be predominantly used by powerful people to conceal aspects of their personal lives that would have made them look really bad if revealed. She talks specifically about President Grover Cleaveland and his amorous affairs, including a possible illegitimate child, that were all kept from the view of the public and press by his assertion of the right to privacy. No such right is provided in the Constitution, but over a century of judicial rulings, and in some cases, legislation, have shaped this right. The later part of the book focuses more on modern day issues such as data privacy rights and social media. It was most interesting to me to see how the right to privacy has changed almost entirely based on how the courts have ruled. They were much more privacy-protecting it seemed around the late 1800s and early 20th Century, but then a shift happens and the freedom of the press triumphs over privacy for several decades. Finally, in the 21st century, we’ve seen courts begin to rule more in favor of privacy again. Gajda doesn’t really explore why this shift happens, but it’s interesting to consider. Although I found it a bit dry and repetitive in places and thought that the historical review could have been abbreviated, I found this book really informative and would recommend.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Scott Martin

    Right to privacy. While it is banded about these days, it was not an inherent right from the Constitution. It has evolved over the years, from Zenger and Hamilton to Cleveland and Gawker vs Hulk Hogan. The book focuses on the late 1890/early 1900s, when the legal debate on privacy really took off. From there, it is a shift from right to know to right to privacy to back again. The rise of the internet also changed the game on privacy, especially Section 230, where internet providers were not deem Right to privacy. While it is banded about these days, it was not an inherent right from the Constitution. It has evolved over the years, from Zenger and Hamilton to Cleveland and Gawker vs Hulk Hogan. The book focuses on the late 1890/early 1900s, when the legal debate on privacy really took off. From there, it is a shift from right to know to right to privacy to back again. The rise of the internet also changed the game on privacy, especially Section 230, where internet providers were not deemed responsible for content. It is a long standing debate and one that will continue. Overall a decent read, even if it gets too bogged down in the legalize of court decisions/judgements.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jen

    After read this book about the Constitutional history, Supreme Court and lower court stories and cases about the freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the right to privacy and the right to be forgotten, I don’t know where the line should be. Gajda does a good job of presenting cases in which you see every pro and con of unlimited freedoms for any right. My only complaint is that it’s a dense book, but it’s one I’ll ponder for awhile.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Sara Goldenberg

    Didn't really have any practical applications. Just discussion. Didn't really have any practical applications. Just discussion.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mark

  12. 4 out of 5

    Steve Peterson

  13. 5 out of 5

    Anna Craig

  14. 5 out of 5

    David Will

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lauren Kaufman

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jason T

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kent Winward

  18. 4 out of 5

    Brian Hall

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jan

  20. 4 out of 5

    Michael

  21. 4 out of 5

    Shana Yates

  22. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Breza

  23. 5 out of 5

    Crystal

  24. 5 out of 5

    Bernardo Gonzalez

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mr. Book

  26. 5 out of 5

    Brian

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jolynn

  28. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Cochran

  29. 4 out of 5

    Melissa Cordial

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jason

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