Privacy: A Quick Lit Review

This isn’t a ‘full’ post, in the sense that I’m not actually going to get into any issues. Instead I’m going to put up a list of texts that are particularly helpful in getting into debates surrounding privacy, as well as some texts that deal with privacy as it relates to the process of digitization. I want to do this for two reasons: First, because I am curious to see how I would change this list in a year or two’s time, and second because when I was getting into my Master’s project I couldn’t find anything like the list I’ve prepared.

For the usual purposes of full disclosure/covering my ass, I’ll note that this list should be read as something ‘ongoing’/’in development’. It’s not comprehensive of everything that I’ve ever read and only reflects what I’ve been exposed to up until this point.

Core Books

Philosophical Dimensions of Privacy: An Anthology by Ferdinand D. Schoeman.
Somewhat amusingly, I finally got this book just a month or so after receiving my MA. Why is this the first book on the list? Because it would have saved me a metric buttload of time in going to primary sources to ‘catch up’ on the genealogy of privacy debates. Schoeman has done an exceptional job in collecting major issues and debates in privacy, drawing from prominent philosophical and legal theorists. The downside: it was published in 1984, so it misses the more contemporary discussions in the ongoing debates surrounding privacy. That said, its indispensable if you’re looking for a solid first academic discussion of privacy.

“It’s Discrimination, Stupid!” by Oscar H. Gandy Jr, from Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information.
Gandy brings a core insight to the table: rather than focusing on a panoptic observation per Foucault, he attends to the panoptic sort. The ‘sort involves the identification of various informationally relevant particularities of people’s lives, and how they are computationally sorted, which ultimately catalogues citizens according to a set of dehumanized traits. This relates to privacy because Gandy provides insight into how databases operate while attending to the contemporary issues of datavallence, that is, the persistent collection and surveillance of individuals on the basis of data collected from their persistent involvement with ubiquitous computing devices.

R.D. Laing: The Philosophy and Politics of Psychotherapy by Andrew Collier
Laing took a particularly sophisticated phenomenological approach to matters of psychotherapy. In a great deal of his work, including The Politics of the Family and The Politics of Experience, he spent a great deal of time considering the relationship between privacy and publicity, while simultaneously contemplating their relation to the development of neurosis. Collier manages to beautifully integrate and critically reflect on Laing’s work. Admittedly, this is most helpful if you are advancing the claim that privacy is integral to the becoming and being of Self, but it remains to the privacy skeptic insofar as if summarizes a great deal of what the skeptic must refute.

Hiding from Humanity by Martha Nussbaum
Nussbaum’s legal treatise focuses on the appropriate roles of shaming and disgust in lawmaking, with the general point being that they cannot be integrated into legal systems without the risks of severely damaging the targets of laws derived from shaming and disgust. She provides excellent overview accounts of privacy as it relates to both law and psychology, and also provides an ingenious method of improving on Mill’s Harm Principle. Her work is particular useful because it draws on contemporary legal and social issues and identifies how they relate to the sense of individuality, self, and dignity that all Western citizens expect while developing her accounting around core liberal philosophical tenets.

In Pursuit of Privacy: Law, Ethics, and the Rise of Technology by Judith Wagner Decew.
Though a bit dated (1997), Wagner Decew’s text both provides wonderful, compressed, accounts of the major privacy debates over the 15-20 years predating her text while projecting a considerable degree of insight into how developing technologies might impact individuals’ privacy. This is an excellent ‘beginning book’, and doesn’t require the reader to have any significant amount of philosophical or legal training to appreciate the complex issues at hand.

Privacy and Digitization

The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace by Vincent Mosco.
This book is practically required if you want to begin studying digital systems as they relate to…well…almost any social issue. Mosco, a political scientist at Queens, begins by laying out prior myths surrounding technology, and draws links between prior technologies and our present reverence of technological systems such as the Internet and personal computing. Arguing that we will only realize these systems’ genuine influence and power when they recede into ubiquitous settings (as was the case with the telephone, radio, electricity, airline flight, etc) his focus is on the de-mythification of cyberspace. Moreover, he provides an excellent account of the process of digitization, that is, of the transferral of nodes of power and communication from analogue to digital systems. His analysis is invaluable to anyone who wants to consider the current experiences of living in a ‘digital era’.

Code: Version 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig.
Embarrassingly, I didn’t really know about Lessig until about a year and a half ago or so. While I can’t agree with all of what he says (and in fact devote a section of my thesis to separate my claims and proposed solutions to privacy infringements from his capitalist solutions) the man is a genius. As the founder of the Creative Commons, as well as a prominent advocate for digital rights and responsible computer surveillance, you really just need to read him. If you work in the humanities, and your work involves computers/digital systems, this book (which nicely captures a massive amount of his previous work in a mature piece of writing) is a must have, must read, must reference text.

The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age and The Future of Reputation: Gossip Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet by Daniel J. Solove.
I couldn’t have written my MA thesis without The Digital Person – it would simply have been outside of the scope of my project. In this text, Solove masterfully captures the impact of databases on people’s day-to-day lives and deficiencies with several legal ‘responses’ to this invasion of people’s expectations of privacy. If you are interested in data-mining, and how a legal scholar approaches this topic, you need this book. Moreover, and this is the book’s (perhaps most valuable) contribution for junior scholars examining digital systems, is that it validates investigation into data mining. Use this text to convince your advisor that you not only should, but ought, to be involved in this important area of research.

His most recent text, The Future of Reputation, isn’t as strong as The Digital Person. That said, it provides a wonderful overview of the very real concerns and issues that are arising with the advent of ubiquitous computing devices, social networking services, and Google. His legal responses here fail to really account for the ‘big picture’ (i.e. international character) of many of the issues he is discussing, but that’s principally because there really isn’t a foundational (read: enforceable) method of invoking privacy rights internationally. I would have liked to see him enter into this argument in some fashion, if only because of his present academic role as a pioneer into the unknown. He’s well-known enough, and well-respected enough, that junior scholars need people like him to just say it’s possible to do so they can legitimize their project to somewhat conservative supervisors and more senior academics. Sure, they can try to go it alone, but that’s an incredibly tough road to travel on without being able to lean on someone.

Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu.
The Internet isn’t free as in freedom, nor free as in beer. You’re not anonymous, you can always be found and censored, and notions of a digital commons are not necessarily valid. This book is a hard, cold look at why the Internet isn’t the dream it’s made out to be, and it’s required reading even if you’ve already lost all the illusions of Utopia: Internet.

I could list a great deal of other sources (and especially journal articles), but I think that this would function as a ‘baseline’ were I to begin the privacy/digital systems aspect of my MA thesis again. Hopefully this is found by someone who was in my shoes at some point and it can act as a helpful starting point/point of continuity.