A Premature Eulogy for Privacy

Review Article by Evan Selinger: “Every so often a sound critical thinker and superb writer asks the wrong questions of a wheel-spinning topic like privacy and then draws the wrong conclusions. This is the case with Firmin DeBrabander in his Life After Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society. Professor of Philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, DeBrabander has a gift for clearly expressing complex ideas and explaining why underappreciated moments in the history of ideas have contemporary relevance. In this book, he aims “to understand the prospects and future of democracy without privacy, or very little of it.” That attempt necessarily leads him both to undervalue privacy and make a case for accepting a severely weakened democracy.

To be sure, DeBrabander doesn’t dismiss privacy with any sort of enthusiasm. On the contrary, he loves his privacy, depicting himself as someone who has to block his “beloved” but overly disclosive students on Facebook. “If I had my druthers, my personal data would be sacrosanct,” he writes. But he is convinced privacy is a lost cause. He makes what are essentially six claims about privacy — some of them seemingly obvious and others more startling — to buttress his eulogy.

Prosecuting Privacy

It’s worth listing DeBrabander’s six propositions here before then rebutting or at least complicating their veracity. The first privacy proposition repeats what has become a seeming truism: we’re living in a “confessional culture” that normalizes oversharing. His second has two components, both much discussed in the last several years: companies participating in the “surveillance economy” have an insatiable appetite for our personal information, and consumers don’t fully comprehend just how much value these companies are able to extract from it through data analytics. He emphasizes Charles Duhigg’s much-discussed 2012 New York Times article about Target using predictive analytics on big data to identify pregnant customers and present them with relevant coupons. Consumers, he contends, will continue giving away massive amounts of personal information to make their cars, homes, cities, and even bodies smarter; it’s likely they won’t be any more equipped in the future to assess tradeoffs and determine when they’re being exploited….(More)”.