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Privacy Perspectives | A short history of privacy in US State of the Union addresses Related reading: Biden to address tech regulation, privacy in State of the Union address



The State of the Union address has a long history in the United States, going back to the Constitution and birth of the Republic, when President George Washington set the precedent by sharing his report on the country with both houses of Congress.

That tradition did not last long, however, as less than a decade later, Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president, simply presented the legislature with a written report. Fast forward to the early 20th century and find that Woodrow Wilson revived the oratorical tradition in 1913. The constitutionally mandated update was formally known as the Annual Message until 1946 and officially became the State of the Union in 1947.

Some of the most significant U.S. presidential speeches were born from the State of the Union. President James Monroe introduced the world to the Monroe Doctrine in his 1823 speech. As the world slipped into World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt laid out his famous “Four Freedoms” speech. And in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced his “War on Poverty,” which ultimately led to the Economic Opportunity Act.

The annual address also serves as a reflection of the technology of the times. President Calvin Coolidge’s speech in 1923 was the first to broadcast over the radio. A little more than 20 years later, in 1947, Harry Truman’s was the first to appear on television. By 1997, Bill Clinton’s was the first address on a newer invention: the World Wide Web. Though it was not until 2002 under George W. Bush’s presidency that the speech was webcast online.

No doubt, by the end of the 20th century, with the rise of the internet, privacy manifested through a number of U.S. laws. Under Clinton, the U.S. had recently passed major privacy laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. In his 1999 address, Clinton warned, “As more of our medical records are stored electronically, the threats to all our privacy increase. Because Congress has given me the authority to act if it does not do so by August, one way or another, we can all say to the American people, ‘We will protect the privacy of medical records, and we will do it this year.’”

A year later, Clinton once again brought up the importance of privacy and, this time, financial records, noting, “We’ve … taken the first steps to protect the privacy of bank and credit card records and other financial statements. Soon, I will send legislation to you to finish that job.”

Following on Clinton’s heels and in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush did not mention privacy in his State of the Union speeches until 2008. And again, this involved health care and the “privacy of your doctor’s office.”   

Yet, neither Clinton nor Bush were the first U.S. presidents to bring up privacy in a State of the Union address.

In 1974, President Richard Nixon spoke extensively about it during his speech, noting:

“One measure of a truly free society is the vigor with which it protects the liberties of its individual citizens. As technology has advanced in America, it has increasingly encroached on one of those liberties — what I term the right of personal privacy. Modern information systems, data banks, credit records, mailing list abuses, electronic snooping, the collection of personal data for one purpose that may be used for another — all these have left millions of Americans deeply concerned by the privacy they cherish. And the time has come, for a major initiative to define the nature and extent of the basic rights of privacy and to erect new safeguards to ensure that those rights are respected. … We will make an historical beginning on the task of defining and protecting the right of personal privacy for every American.”

Forty years later, President Barack Obama, in his third State of the Union address to explicitly mention privacy, spoke in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, which exposed the extent and power of U.S. national security surveillance operations. “I will reform our surveillance programs, because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.”

By 2015, with a Web 2.0 in full effect, a privacy world reeling from the Snowden leaks, just months before a massive hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and an uptick on terrorist attacks that eventually led to the “Apple vs. FBI” debates, Obama spent a significant portion of his speech on privacy.

Obama said, “Tonight I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyberattacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children's information.” He continued, “As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse. And next month, we'll issue a report on how we're keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy.”

True, President Donald Trump seems to have avoided mentioning privacy during his single term, but President Joe Biden brought it back in 2022, saying, “It is time to strengthen privacy protection, ban targeted advertising to children, demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children.”

And for a second straight year, Biden once again raised the issue of children’s privacy. “It’s time to pass bipartisan legislation to stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online, ban targeted advertising to children, and impose stricter limits on the personal data these companies collect on all of us.”

But that’s not all. In the current post-Roe era, Biden addressed women’s reproductive rights, saying, “The Vice President and I are doing everything we can to protect access to reproductive health care and safeguard patient privacy.”

Finally, in a Fact Sheet released Tuesday ahead of the speech, the White House noted, “There should be clear and strict limits on the ability to collect, use, transfer, and maintain our personal data, especially for sensitive data such as geolocation and health information, and the burden must fall on companies — not consumers — to minimize how much information they collect.”

With the next technological revolution upon us, artificial intelligence was lined up to make an appearance in Biden’s 2023 State of the Union speech as he calls for algorithmic transparency to curb discrimination and mitigate the nation’s growing division. That part, however, was ultimately removed from the final speech. No doubt, AI will make its way into future addresses. 

Will Biden’s call for bipartisan legislation lead to a national privacy law in 2023? Time will tell.

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