A Review Of The Book – “Why Privacy Matters” By Neil Richards

The book “Why Privacy Matters” by Neil Richards addresses the rhetoric that privacy is dead or dying. If you are a privacy enthusiast or someone who accepts this rhetoric, this is a must-read. The book focuses on a challenging problem in an expanding digital universe – information privacy. The book comprises six chapters divided into two equal parts. 

Part I elaborates on the definition of privacy, privacy as rules, and what privacy isn’t, which make up the first three chapters. Over the years, there are many definitions of “Privacy” that exist. Some definitions enabled privacy to work in favor of governments or companies. In the first chapter, the author offers a simple, clear, and unbiased definition of privacy. Chapter two proposes a way to think about privacy as a set of rules that govern human information. It outlines the four rules that serve this specific purpose. Part I concludes by listing the myths of privacy that prevail today. The four myths are – privacy is not about hiding secrets, it’s not about the creepiness factor, it’s not about having control, and it is not dead! 

In Part II, Neil Richards peels the privacy onion to summarize the three important human values that it should serve. Identity, Freedom, and Protection are the values that make up the final three chapters. The author underscores the significance of privacy in the context of identity in chapter four. This chapter discusses how privacy facilitates us to determine and express our identities on our terms. The chapter offers real-world examples that force, filter, and expose our identities. All these try to make our respective identities unitary and unchanging rather than allowing them to be flexible.

Privacy protects the space between the individual and society. Chapter five attempts to convey the implications of privacy on freedom. It begins with a description of the power of surveillance and its effect on intellectual privacy and political freedom. It details the power effects of surveillance – blackmailing and discrediting, persuasion, and discrimination.

The final chapter six on protection is all about consumer protection, laws, and how they should be handled in the information age. A common theme in all the industrial revolutions is that problems that emerge need new solutions. In such cases, the law is either lagging or not ready to realign. The author emphasizes that this is true for the information revolution as well. The tools and laws that we built for industrial life have or will become inadequate. The author advocates that the consumer privacy law for the information economy must become a consumer protection law. The author introduces a concept of a “Situated Consumer” that is closer to an idealistic user. This is a user who does not have time to make hundreds of rational decisions and lacks access to expensive lawyers. This part concludes by taking a closer look at the essential factors that enable trust in our information relationships. The four factors suggested are about being discreet, honest, protective, and loyal.

The author’s extensive research and synthesis on privacy are comprehensive. The work includes changes in privacy, surveillance, and law over various periods. It provides clarity on all the noise about privacy that exists today in the data world. All this is well articulated persuasively on why privacy should matter to us.

Pick up your copy or listen to the author’s interview by IAPP.