Review: The Privacy Advocates

I’ll start this by being very forthright: Colin is my supervisor for my doctoral work. This said, the review that I offer is my own, and has not been influenced by Colin in any way. He has not read this review (or even made aware that I was preparing a review!) prior to my posting it.

The Privacy Advocates: Resisting the Spread of Surveillance is an interesting book, because it is the first of its kind where the agents who are on the ground fighting the fight for privacy are examined. Given Bennett’s extensive relationships with various data authorities and advocates, we get a very revealing glimpse into the lives, histories, and motivations of the major players in Canada, the US, and a handful of international advocacy groups. Bennett’s critical thrust in the book, which we get to in its last chapter, is this: “Should we understand privacy advocates as transforming their work into a movement, such as the environmental movement, and is such a transformation necessary for them to successfully engage privacy-infringing bodies in the future?”

To set the frame for his response to this question, Bennett identifies the history that has led privacy advocates to spring from the various areas of civil society that they emerge out of. He talks about how computers led to a perception that there is a greater potential for mass surveillance, but then rapidly turns to look at the groups who are actually engaging with issues of surveillance and privacy. He establishes a tripartite categorization of the groups that are involved in privacy and privacy-related issues:

  1. Privacy-centric groups; these groups exclusively attend to issues of privacy, and their mandate is predicated on this issue exclusively.
  2. Privacy-explicit groups; for these groups, privacy is an important facet of the issues that they attend to, but is one of many issues.
  3. Privacy-marginal groups; these groups do address privacy issues, but often in response to other social injustices (e.g. consumer groups who oppose tracking consumer spending, and so oppose RFID identifiers)

Within each group are sets of actors, which are divided into a six-part type-based categorization schema. Actors can be either:

  1. Advocate/Activists
  2. Advocate/Researchers
  3. Advocate/Consultants
  4. Advocate/Technologists
  5. Advocate/Journalists
  6. Advocate/Artists

It is after these two sets of categories that Bennett talks about the strategies that are used, lessons that have been drawn from past campaigns, and the relative heterogeneity of the actors and their networks. Generally, the question becomes whether or not we can read these networks as developing into some kind of a movement (with the example being that information rights will be the new ‘rights movement’ that the environmental rights movement was in the 20th century) or whether these networks will be best understood as advocacy groups that rise and fade away as issues demand of them. I won’t spoil Bennett’s conclusion for you, but will add some elements that I would have liked to have seen.

To begin, while I can appreciate that Bennett’s purpose was to get advocates to tell their own stories, and to subsequently evaluate what the trajectory of advocates will be in the future, I wonder if his attention to the advocates themselves forces him to present his own argument more hastily than it could had he spent slight less (10-15 pages?) on the advocates. Further, while he does note that advocates are involved in the policy process, it is left to the reader to understand how these processes operate. A greater attention to explicit links between advocacy actions and the stages of the policy process would assist students of political science clearly identify at what points campaigns can be understood as having left a resonating effect on the policy process. While it is possible to derive where these points are by closely reading the cases as presented in the text, alongside some side-research into the privacy campaigns, it would be nice to have had Bennett do some of this ‘heavy lifting.’

Bennett distances himself from the notion that privacy advocates will transform their work into a social movement paralleling the environmental movement, but I wonder if spending more time on this issue wouldn’t have been helpful. While we have very good testimony from advocates, who demonstrate a mixed reaction to the proposal that they develop a more cohesive organization/ideological stance, it would be nice to have seen Bennett himself weigh into the issue on his own terms in a more strident fashion. I keep coming back to the idea of “data spills” as the new way of framing data breeches, just as environmentalists focus on “oil spills” as destructive to the environment; a detailed account of the possibilities of this kind of rhetorical twist while drawing on both advocacy literature and his expert interviews would have been very interesting to read. What’s more, while he notes that some academics (such as Pris Regan) question whether or not privacy issues can be seen as important by legislators as long as they are seen as individual, rather than community, issues I wish that Bennett himself had taken a more pronounced stance on why, and how, privacy is or isn’t a community or individual issue.

These comments shouldn’t be taken to suggest that I disliked the text – I think that it’s invaluable to any neophyte activist who wants to learn how to successfully wage a campaign against a government or corporation that is violating people’s privacy. The interviews are revealing, insofar as they shed light on the individuals and groups who are so often read about in the news. What’s more, by presenting successes, Bennett demonstrates that campaigns are far from hopeless, though ‘success’ is mediated by the fact that privacy advocates have (arguably) had very little impact on the widespread raising of privacy standards internationally.

All in all, if you are interested in privacy and want to gain a deeper understanding about who is articulating the resistance against surveillance, then this book is for you. Just be careful that you don’t come to the book hoping that it exceeds the scope that the author outlines in the first section of the book – he is rigorous in his examination, and avoids deviating from his primary goal of explicating the groups, movements, and evaluating whether or not advocates can, or even want to, expand beyond their current status as semi-amorphous bodies that actively resist inappropriate invasions of people’s privacy.