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Academic Research

The Impact of Technology on Privacy Law

Academic Research

The Impact of Technology on Privacy Law

Broadly stated, my current research involves an investigation into the impact of new technologies on practical aspects of the law. Thus, I am interested in broad questions like whether societal ideals and conceptions drive both the law and technology, or if technology drives the law and societal expectations, or if there is some other factor at play. While primarily a historical investigation, these questions have applicability to the contemporary world, e.g., to issues of Internet privacy, wiretapping, vaccination, contraception, and abortion.

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The Dissertation

For my dissertation, I am researching privacy in the United Sates from roughly 1800-1967, and particularly the impacts new technologies (like the telegraph or the contraceptive pill) had on conceptions and implementations of privacy. As part of this work, I look at legal history, especially in regards to individual liberty and government intervention, federal versus state authority, the development of common-law precedents, and the perception of scientific and technological expertise and authority.

The starting point for this was asking the apparently simple question, “Why do American courts evaluate both wiretaps and abortion under the legal doctrine of the ‘right to privacy’”? Wouldn’t it have been less controversial, I wondered, if in Roe v. Wade the court had simply discussed a “right to liberty”—since that’s explicitly in the Constitution—rather than a “right to privacy,” which must be inferred?

I then sought to answer this question by looking at the technologies (postal mail, the telephone, contraception, etc.) and social/ideological conditions (especially the sanctified role of the domestic home) that implicated legal arguments around the concept of privacy in the United States—and, at least at a basic level, how that compared with the rest of the world.

So, put differently, my dissertation focuses on techno-scientific developments impacting the relationship between individuals and the state by following the late nineteenth- and twentieth-century efforts to establish a modus vivendi between the increasingly powerful administrative state and two foundational tenets of a liberal democracy: liberty and privacy.

In my work, I trace the complex roots of modern privacy law through the impact of technology: the telegraph, the railroad, public health and eugenics, the telephone and early computing, and then into contraception and abortion. In each case, I show the complex connection between the powerful elite–judges, legislators–who traditionally control the legal narrative and the injured and disadvantaged parties, including women, people of color, and the disabled, who drive change from the “bottom up.”

For me, an analysis of the law provides an effective look back at the ways in which theoretical and practical concerns of the day were mediated, contained, implemented, and even ignored. There are few other mechanisms in American society quite like the court system. Judges and juries, when faced with particular cases and controversies, do not have the luxury of simply ignoring a problem because it is too difficult. Instead, they take legal theory and ideals and them into practical effect.

I expect to defend in the fall of 2017.

Other Research Interests

I also continue to pursue work on other issues, such as the role of technology transfer offices in an increasingly neoliberal university environment, the history of disability law, the limits of the First Amendment, and more. You can find my more formal work listed via Google Scholar. More informal material is available online at in propria persona, for example:

Some Informal Articles