Book review: Privacy in peril

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….


Skip to comment form

    • plf515 on December 18, 2007 at 00:23
  1. to all the bullshit arguments for collection of data. How do any of these benefit society? They don’t the world does not need the assholes who control the money to have more information. What is credit? It’s false economy it’s owing the vig it’s supporting the crooks. Live without this shit it’s an illusion to operate your life on these rules which will kill us all both spiritually and materially, not to mention the price the world pays.

    • pfiore8 on December 18, 2007 at 01:08

    “If you are doing anything wrong, why are you hiding?”

    you don’t need to do anything wrong to have evidence manufactured against you… photos and video/film/digital can all be doctored to turn the truth into a lie… and the more they know about you and the more they are allowed into your life, the more they can turn your truth into lies.

    one final note: swift-boating of John Kerry. if that doesn’t make you afraid of what people can and will do with your personal information, i don’t know what else to tell you.

  2. without the slavery of data. Data is neither right nor wrong it’s numbers. Numbers while pure are not truths or solutions. They are measurements. Health is not a measurement, it is a state of being. Freedom is not a measurement it is a state of being. Give me the choice between freedom and fear of freedom and the statistics of survival, and I will take the choice of freedom every time. There is more to reality then data and so called science. Facts are not hard truths we see them twisted everyday. The first step is to not sell your birthright of freedom for a place at the trough of purchase.    


    • Temmoku on December 18, 2007 at 05:47

    or the Patriot Act….after all, they will save American lives. What they don’t understand is that those Acts will not save American Lives and it not about doing something wrong or doing right. The invasion of privacy is, in itself, inhibiting. If you know someone is watching or listening, then you tend to watch and restrict your words and actions….Not because you are thinking wrongly but because there are things you’d rather people didn’t know. There are some who believe that people shouldn’t have any secrets and everything should conform to a certain mindset. Invasion of privacy is not about protection to save lives, it is about protection of the ruling elite who can keep a population under control just by convincing people that they are being protected for their own good. In a population of 300 million, the loss of 3 thousand is small compared to a population of 25 million with a loss of 3000. The numbers may be the same, but the result is not.  

Comments have been disabled.