Document Type

Book Review

Publication Date

2001

Abstract

This essay reviews Jeffrey Rosen’s The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America (2000).

Rosen offers a compelling (and often hair-raising) account of the pervasive dissolution of the boundary between public and private information. This dissolution is both legal and social; neither the law nor any other social institution seems to recognize many limits on the sorts of information that can be subjected to public scrutiny. The book also provides a rich, evocative characterization of the dignitary harms caused by privacy invasion. Rosen’s description of the sheer unfairness of being “judged out of context” rings instantly true. Privacy, Rosen concludes, is indispensable to human well-being and is at risk of being destroyed unless we act fast.

The book is far less convincing, however, when it moves beyond description and attempts to identify the causes of the destruction of privacy and propose solutions. Why is privacy under siege today? The incidents that Rosen chooses as illustrations both reveal and obscure. From Monica Lewinsky’s unsent, deleted e-mails to the private online activities of corporate employees and the Dean of the Harvard Divinity School, the examples offer a rich stew of technology, corporate mind control, public scapegoating, and political intrigue. But for the most part, Rosen seems to think that it is sex that is primarily to blame for these developments—though how, exactly, Rosen cannot seem to decide. He suggests, variously, that we seek private information out of prurient fascination with other people’s intimate behavior, or to enforce upon others authoritarian notions of “correct” interpersonal behavior, or to inform moral judgments about others based on a hasty and ill-conceived equivalence between the personal and the political. Or perhaps Rosen is simply upset about the loss of privacy for a specific sort of (sexual or intimate) behavior, whatever the origin of society’s impulse to pry.

Yet there are puzzling anomalies in Rosen’s account. Most notably, appended to Rosen’s excavation of recent sex-related privacy invasions is a chapter on privacy in cyberspace. This chapter sits uneasily in relation to the rest of the book. Its focus is not confined to sex-related privacy, and Rosen does not explain how the more varied information-gathering activities chronicled there bear on his earlier analysis. Rosen acknowledges as much and offers, instead, the explanation that intimate privacy and cyberspace privacy are simply two examples of the same problem: the risk of being judged out of context in a world of short attention spans, and the harms to dignity that follow. This explanation seems far too simple, and more than a bit circular. Why this rush to judge others out of context? Necessity is one answer—if attention spans are limited, we cannot avoid making decisions based on incomplete information—but where does the necessity to judge come from? And what do computers and digital networking technologies—factors that recur not only in the chapter on cyberspace privacy, but also in most of Rosen’s other examples—have to do with it?

This Review Essay argues, first, that the use of personal information to sort and classify individuals is inextricably bound up with the fabric of our political economy. As Part II explains, the unfettered use of “true” information to predict risk and minimize uncertainty is a hallmark of the liberal state and its constituent economic and political markets. Not sex, but money, and more broadly an ideology about the predictive power of isolated facts, generate the perceived necessity to judge individuals based on incomplete profiles. The harms of this rush to judgment—harms not only to dignity, but also to economic welfare and more fundamentally to individual autonomy—may undermine liberal individualism (as Rosen argues), but they are products of it as well. Part III argues, further, that the problem of vanishing informational privacy in digital networked environments is not sui generis, but rather is central to understanding the destruction of privacy more generally. This is not simply because new technologies reduce the costs of collecting, exchanging, and processing the traditional sorts of consumer information. The profit-driven search for personal information via digital networks is also catalyzing an erosion of the privacy that individuals have customarily enjoyed in their homes, their private papers, and even their thoughts. This process is transforming not only the way we experience privacy, but also the way we understand it. Privacy is becoming not only harder to protect, but also harder to justify protecting. Part IV concludes that shifting these mutually reinforcing ideological and technological vectors will require more drastic intervention than Rosen suggests.

Publication Citation

89 Geo. L.J. 2029-2045 (2001) (reviewing Jeffrey Rosen, The Unwanted Gaze (2000))