caveat: Oxford University Press has been sending me books to review. I only read the ones that seem interesting to me.
crossposted to dailyKos
The quick take: Privacy in Peril
by James Rule, is a well-written, well-researched, and well-thought out book on privacy covering philosophy, government surveillance, commercial surveillance and the future of privacy.
If you are interested in privacy, you should probably read this book
It is probably safe to say that most, if not all, people value their privacy. But when we start to look at exactly what this means, we enter a thorny place. James Rule is an excellent guide through the thicket.
He starts with an introduction, covering the philosophical roots of different views of privacy and its value, especially contrasting Hobbes and Kant. Next, he looks at the growth of government surveillance. Third, he looks at commercial use of data. Finally, he looks at the future. He concentrates on the United States, with some coverage of Europe, Canada and Australia.
There are telling insights sprinkled throughout. For example, one reason that the government needs data about us is so that it can collect income tax. No one likes income tax, but it replaced a system of tax farming that was much worse, and, if the government did not have information about our income, we would be back to tax farming.
One commercial use of data is credit ratings. We don’t want credit companies collecting data on us – especially when it’s incorrect! – but those of us with good credit ratings probably like paying lower interest.
Another example is that, while the trend has clearly been toward less and less privacy, it isn’t entirely one-directional. Today, when so many people live in large cities, we live with a great deal more privacy from our neighbors than many residents of small towns do.
One final example: One statement often made by those who encroach on our privacy is that “If you are doing anything wrong, why are you hiding?” but many of us want privacy when we are doing nothing wrong. Few of us would want to be videotaped on the toilet or while making love, even though there is nothing wrong with what we are doing in either place!
How much privacy do we want? Against whom? What are we willing to concede, for the sake of being rewarded for good credit, or for a more equitable income tax system, or for the war on terror? How can this privacy be enforced? How can we have recourse against errors in our data, without eliminating the collection of the data in the first place? Are there legitimate uses of secret data in battles against terrorists?
These questions aren’t answered in this book – Rule provides some of his own thoughts on the limits of privacy, the uses of privacy, and so on. But the book raises all these questions in interesting ways, and gives us the background to think about them more deeply, and in a more informed way
This isn’t a perfect book. While it’s well-written, it does get a little repetitious. I found myself skimming some sections. Rule is a professor; he’s a professor who writes well, and this book is intended for a general, if somewhat elite, audience. Yet he is a professor first, not a writer first. It’s also rather short. It could, curiously, stand both some editing and some fleshing out.
Still, I can highly recommend this book to anyone concerned about privacy issues – and most of us should be concerned….