Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The War on Privacy - Jacqueline Klosek

Summary: In today's globalized society, the war on terror has negatively affected privacy rights not just in the United States, but everywhere. When privacy rights are curtailed around the world, American efforts to spread freedom and democracy are hindered, and as a consequence, Americans are less secure in the world. Ironically, the erosion of individual privacy rights, here and abroad, has been happening in the name of enhancing national security.

This book sheds light on this apparent contradiction and argues that governments must do more to preserve privacy rights while endeavoring to protect their citizens against future terror attacks. It is easy to forget that prior to 9/11 privacy rights were on the march. Plans were in the works, in the areas of legislation and regulation, to protect personal privacy from both governmental intrusion and corporate penetration. The need for such protections arose from the swift advances in information technology of the 1990s. But the attacks of 9/11, and the responses of governments to this new level of terrorist threat, put an end to all that. Not only is privacy no longer emphasized in legislation, it is being eroded steadily, raising significant questions about the handling of personal information, surveillance, and other invasions into the private lives of ordinary citizens.
(Image from Amazon.com; summary from book jacket. Free copy reviewed at publisher's request.)

My Review: You'd think that a book about shadowy government surveillance programs, a la 1984, would practically write itself. How hard can it be to convince your readers that a gargantuan database detailing their every credit card purchase, every phone call, even the color of their hair and (perhaps) the names of their cats--all handled by private contractors with minimal security--is a bad thing?

Apparently, it's harder than I would have thought. Despite (or perhaps because of) encyclopedic descriptions of virtually every privacy-related law in the world, on a country-by-country basis, The War on Privacy is easily the most boring book I've read this year--and I make a living reading boring books. The author seems to have put so much effort into researching the minutia of various laws that she lost sight of the bigger picture--the effects that government invasions of privacy have on real people and on society as a whole. Aside from a few anecdotes and some boilerplate analysis in the introduction and conclusion, there's nothing in this book to give the reader a reason to care.

But being boring is not the worst crime a book on important issues of public policy can commit; far from it. And indeed, our privacies are being rapidly and frighteningly eroded (a trend which has not reversed, that I can tell, since this book was published in 2007). A far worse crime is failing to offer even a framework for a solution to the problems it discusses. Unfortunately, The War on Privacy does not deliver. For all its footnotes and gravitas, this book boils down to little more than intellectual tsk-tsking over the ugly truths of international realpolitik.

My Rating: 1 Star. Give it a pass unless you've got a compelling personal interest in the privacy and terrorism policies of, say, Argentina or Bahrain.

Sum It Up: Like many of its cousins from the fiction section of the library, the most interesting part of this book is the cover. What's inside is mostly filler.

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