The Privacy Invaders
The Naked Society
What Is Conservatism?
The Conservative Papers
In his book on the invasion of privacy Myron Brenton, a former private detective, now presumably repentant, suggests with alarm that a consolidated record of a man’s life can soon be compiled from his Internal Revenue file, his bank statements, his credit card receipts, his telephone bills, etc. so that his privacy may be made to vanish without his even having known what happened. Since the intimate records of our private lives are no longer our exclusive property, it follows, Mr. Brenton feels, that our constitutional protection from unwarranted search and seizure has become an academic matter. Mr. Brenton’s book is a superficial but earnest report of how private citizens are spied upon by their government, their employers, their insurance companies, the stores they shop in, and even the charitable organizations that solicit money from them: outrages which have lately been implemented by the invention—often in connection with the work of real spies—of tiny cameras, hidden microphones, ingenious mirrors, and electronic systems of cross-filing. That despite all these devices the ubiquitous Vance Packard was presumably able, while Mr. Brenton was writing his book, to go unnoticed while preparing one of his own on the same subject, gives the worried reader reason to hope that the situation may not be so bad as these two writers think.
Still, it is bad enough and if neither Mr. Brenton nor Mr. Packard gets to the bottom of it—or even indicates that there is a bottom to it—this is no reason to be complacent. For the invasion of privacy is among mankind’s oldest and deepest problems, beginning with the invasion of Abel’s privacy by Cain or with whatever actual invasion of the precincts of one tribe by another that story is meant to represent. In recent years the decline of bourgeois society, with its thick-walled dwellings, its shutters and draperies, its strict standard of professional secrecy, its feelings against the display of strong emotion, has opened the way for our characteristic modern abuses of privacy: the midnight visits of the secret police and air raids, the pollution of the air in our lungs and the talk of megadeaths. Beside all this the cameras in the lavatories and the microphones under the bed, which Mr. Brenton and Mr. Packard describe, are by no means trivial, but they are hardly intelligible as isolated symptoms. Neither author seems to grasp that the insurance investigators and the credit bureaus, the Internal Revenue and the employment office, the pollsters and the researchers are anything more than a local and recent anomaly, to be corrected, Mr. Packard thinks, if only we support the ACLU and read the Bill of Rights, which he thoughtfully prints as an appendix to his book. But this is to expect that the private and public agencies which flourish at the expense of our privacy will stop if only they are appealed to on reasonable enough grounds; that the present tendency toward increasingly rationalized governments and business, whose …
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Epstein’s English Usage July 9, 1964