Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Robert David Johnson

Committee Members

David Nasaw

James Oakes

Teresita Levy

Laird Bergad

Subject Categories

United States History


Privacy, Security, History, Surveillance, Data Collection, Sexual Privacy


The protection of personal privacy is one of the foremost concerns facing the United States in the twenty-first century. But how did America, despite having a strong regard for individual privacy embedded in its national culture, come to establish what most experts consider to be the weakest system of privacy protections among the advanced democracies?

This dissertation argues that throughout the “long” twentieth-century (1890-1999) various actors and organizations shifted the social and cultural boundaries of American privacy with rhetoric that wedded privacy invasions with appeals to the “public good” – things like national security, journalistic freedom, corporate efficiency, and the extension of social welfare benefits. The key privacy debates in United States history often took on an “all-or-nothing” character, and were incorrectly framed as questions of whether legitimate public interests were more important than privacy instead of examining how privacy could be protected while simultaneously embracing those interests. Understanding why these opportunities were squandered is crucial if those taking up the fight for privacy today want to do so with any kind of elevated perspective. The best way to see the inherent flaws in our current discourse about privacy is to look at it historically. Ultimately, this is a story about America’s failure to find balance.

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