Review of ‘Life After Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society’ by Firmin Debrabander

The preface of the book starts with outlining how modern life bleeds private information in a multitude of ways, and often becomes a ‘confessional culture’. And yet, “Most of us are at a loss to say why privacy is important, why we ought to protect it, what is lost when privacy is invaded or obliterated.” (p. viii). Debradander reflects on how complicated retaining privacy is in the modern world, where we often, and willingly, provide all kinds of personal information in regular daily interactions.

Book cover for Life after Privacy

Debrabander begins by giving some examples of the notion of privacy in the early days of the United States, particularly where privacy is present (and absent) in early laws. The author points out that we “cannot exercise freedom of speech, assembly, or religion without an antecedent right to privacy, which creates an inviolate zone that government, or other powers and interests, dare not trespass.” The author highlights the importance of the well-known Warren and Brandeis ‘The Right to Privacy’ article, and then accelerates and includes more contemporary examples (Edward Snowden)

Debrabander further goes on to point out how most will freely and willingly share personal information on a variety of platforms and avenues in modern society. And how an individual may respond positively to an abstract notion of privacy, though when faced in the real world, may sacrifice privacy for store discounts, e-coupons, etc. Debrabander also notes the complexities of gauging harm in some privacy violations- how times it will be difficult to fully encapsulate why a privacy violation is hard to articulate and describe the extent of harm (example given of copying and publishing one’s personal diary- there is a violation, though to what extent is there harm? Hypothetical harm can often be very difficult to pinpoint and articulate outside of expected arenas of privacy).

The book talks about the diminishing line between private life and public, particularly for those who share daily (or maybe even hourly) update of their life into public social media arenas, and how, even after known data breaches (Cambridge Analytica and Facebook), individuals will continue to share out all kinds of information with known privacy issues. How companies glean information from all kinds of avenues (the Target example of how clever data analysis was able to determine customers who were in the early stages of pregnancy, the eavesdropping Alexa and Echo devices we may have in our house collecting information, etc.), and how the opt-in privacy policies are things most average citizens won’t read or comprehend the implication. “Just as panoptic surveillance sustains the illusion of self-determination on the part of the watched, so consent sustains the notion that we have some control and choice over data collection.” (p .42)

And, to remind us why we should care about private data collection, Debrabander outlines in chapter 3 how one foreign government is using a five factor system to calculate a ‘Social Credit’ score, that includes incorporating information on behavior and preference. This information is gleaned from purchases and digital transactions, and in conjunction with credit history and other types of information weaves a portrait of an individual to be used in a number of ways. (This description also brought to mind a particular Black mirror episode). Add to that, advances in facial recognition, and the future becomes a little frightening at times. Debrabander wonders what will be the last straw or crossed line that may lead to a social revolt?

“In the face of rapid technological changes transforming our lives in profound ways, the forecast for privacy looks dark.” (p. 58) Debrabander outlines many ways consumers consistently give up pieces of private information for deals and discounts (car insurance, employers with fitness incentives, etc.), to the point that tracking may likely no longer be noticed by many consumers. Likewise, the use of smart technology that monitors all kinds of information. The danger, Debrabander warns, is how this information may be used down the road, in all kinds of forms, shapes and applications. 

“Democracy – liberty – is unthinkable without privacy.” (ix) Debrabander reminds us in chapter five that the expectation of privacy is a relatively modern change, by outlining the concept of privacy in ancient times and within religion over time. I thought Life After Privacy is a great read that is well argued and well researched. 

“…privacy changes as cultural and economic systems demand. Such as now, in the digital revolution. This is not to say that privacy is gone; it is variable, and we must speak of it accordingly.” (p. 28)

AuthorVirginia Dressler

Virginia Dressler is the Digital Projects Librarian at Kent State University. Her specialty areas are project management and digitization, working primarily with the university’s unique collections. She holds a Master's of Library and Information Science from Kent State University (2007), a Master's of the Arts in Art Gallery and Museum Studies from the University of Leeds (2003) and a certificate in advanced librarianship (digital libraries) from Kent State University (2014). Her research areas include privacy in digital collections and the Right to be Forgotten. She is author of Framing Privacy in Digital Collections with Ethical Decision Making (Morgan & Claypool, 2018).