Peeping Tom, Dick and Harry Shrink the Fig Leaf of Privacy

The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America , by Jeffrey Rosen. Random House, 274 pages, $24.95.

Not long ago I asked a friend if he happened to have the address of a writer we both know. My friend didn’t, but said he could probably locate our mutual acquaintance with some help from the Internet. In fact, he reported a short time later, the search engine he’d used had offered to provide us with a detailed map to the writer’s house. For a small fee, we could also obtain the phone numbers of his neighbors; for a slightly higher fee (but still extremely reasonable, considering the value of what was being offered), we could obtain information about the writer’s assets, and any judgments or liens against him. Well, thanks, but no thanks–hey, listen, all I’d wanted was to invite the guy to a party!

Any reader who can’t help feeling a teensy frisson of paranoia and dread whenever he clicks onto his favorite shopping Web site and the home page greets him by name, or when she gets junk mail from a business or charity that seems to have some particular (and creepily well-informed) reason for having targeted her–to say nothing of those readers who have had their phones tapped, their hard drives seized and their private files subpoenaed–will cheer the lucid common sense of Jeffrey Rosen’s The Unwanted Gaze . An associate professor at George Washington University Law School who is also the legal affairs editor of The New Republic , Mr. Rosen has given us a measured and bracingly sane examination of how Americans are losing control over how much every debt collector, marketer and amateur busybody is entitled to know about what they’d foolishly considered to be their private lives, and about the general “erosion of privacy, at home, at work and in cyberspace, so that intimate personal information–from diaries, e-mail and computer files to records of the books we read and the Web sites we browse–is increasingly vulnerable to being wrenched out of context and exposed to the world.”

Mr. Rosen focuses on the loss of privacy in the home now that a determined special prosecutor or just your local district attorney can requisition your junior high school diaries, your Rolodex, your love letters and, worst of all, that embarrassing “note to self.” He examines the pall that began to creep over the workplace when employees realized that the boss knew exactly who’d spent that slow lunch hour surfing the Internet porn sites, and the way that new laws such as the 1994 Molinari amendment (which allows the past misdeeds of accused sex offenders to be introduced as criminal evidence) have subverted the most basic aims of our judicial protections.

At the center of this, of course, is the question of how our society reached the point at which it was widely assumed that every citizen had the inalienable right to know about the stains on Monica’s dress. But wisely, Mr. Rosen lets the murky shadows of the Starr Investigation and the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit merely linger over his argument and moves on to fresher, brighter and less shopworn evidence. He cites landmark cases and relevant historical precedents, notes the distance between the case of John Wilkes (the British editor of a “kind of eighteenth-century Drudge Report”) and the Senate investigation of the sexual harassment charges against Bob Packwood. Arrested for having attacked one of King George III’s speeches, Wilkes became a popular hero and was set free when he protested that his home had been ransacked, his papers seized and his privacy invaded; by contrast, the invasive, legally and socially sanctioned search of Mr. Packwood’s diaries uncovered (and published) information concerning not only the senator’s romantic gropings and fumblings but also his “musings on his favorite recipe for baked apples.” Mr. Rosen’s book is littered with the bodies of martyrs to the war on privacy, from Oliver Sipple (the ex-marine who was “outed” by the press after he saved President Gerald Ford’s life) to the staff of Spin magazine–editors and writers who had their time eaten up and their wallets emptied by a former employee who blamed her career stagnation on the fact that she (unlike the rest of the office, it seemed) hadn’t slept with Spin ‘s editor in chief. And the book has its heroes, such as Chief Justice Louis D. Brandeis, whose landmark essay and subsequent rulings on privacy sound (compared to the current rhetoric) as beautiful, reasonable and lofty as the Sermon on the Mount.

Just as we’re gloomily noting that Brandeis is long dead and that what we have today in his place is Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Mr. Rosen comes to our rescue and actually offers solutions–temporary sandbagging and larger engineering projects that might prevent what’s left of our privacy from being washed away. He suggests that Congress list the crimes “serious enough to justify the search of private papers,” that courts prevent prosecutors from divulging certain information to the media, and he examines the various sorts of encryption software that allow ordinary people to keep their hard drives and e-mail safe from prying eyes.

The Unwanted Gaze reminds you that it is possible to read and think at the same time–a formerly common experience that now, I suppose, qualifies as “multi-tasking.” And you may find yourself moved to pause and mull about whether and how much you concur with what Mr. Rosen is saying. I couldn’t agree more with his concerns about the excesses and follies of the current sexual harassment laws, which he sees, rightly, as measures directed more often at invasions of privacy than bona fide harassment. But I worry about his fond hope that the guys in the office have learned their lesson by now, that we can rely on social norms and peer pressure to remind a naughty C.E.O. to keep his hands off his secretary’s ass. And one might wish that Mr. Rosen had said a bit more about privacy issues affecting the blue-collar workplace (maybe I’m funny that way, but I’d rather have my corporate e-mail read than be ordered, on random occasions, to piss in a paper cup) and about the way mass culture has shifted our notions of the personal and the public: Not only do we know a sex criminal’s prior history, but when the verdict is read, we can catch his reactions–close-up, live and personal–on Court TV.

What Jeffrey Rosen’s book does have is the virtue of brevity and concision, of thoughtfulness, as well as the willingness and the ability to imagine alternatives. His clear voice speaks directly to those of us who still wish to claim a few private moments when Big Brother isn’t watching like some hideous cyber homunculus lurking inside our computer and monitoring each spasmodic little dance that our fingers perform on the keyboard.