In “Life After Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society,” Firmin DeBrabander proposes that the stakes associated with the loss of personal privacy are even higher than is generally acknowledged. Personal privacy is a compelling issue, and his review of it is engaging and accessible. He is successful in demonstrating that powerful forces—corporations, governments, and partisan activists—have many ways of intruding on our private lives and thoughts. DeBrabander’s largest contribution to the ongoing dialogue about privacy, however, is an assertion that the loss of privacy threatens democracy itself. Disturbingly, he may be right—although maybe not for all the reasons he claims.
DeBrabander’s focus is on the use of the internet and how it can be used and abused to shape our thoughts, beliefs, and even our identities. He provides a vast number of examples of how digital communications can be used to surveil and deceive us. And for sure, these attempts to shape our epistemic experiences should worry us. Some threats to privacy, of course, predate the digital age. Privacy often concerns the preservation of one’s accurate (and hopefully, therefore good) reputation, and in service of this goal, even pre-internet, a lot of us were advised not to gossip. Many of us were told that “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” This admonition was meant to discourage gossip within communities, thereby respecting others’ privacy. But DeBrabander is prepared to go a step further, and characterizes these intrusions as a threat to our inner lives—our ability to reflect, genuinely and carefully, and form our values, political beliefs, and commitments. This, he says, is a threat to democracy. It’s a bold contention, and worth considering. If DeBrabander is right, the loss of privacy is no longer a threat merely to individuals, but to entire forms of governance. He does not back off from raising the specters of tyranny, fascism, and autocratic rule that could result.
The fragility of personal privacy is an important issue, and “Life After Privacy” is convincing in its review of these existing concerns. I do hope that people, especially privacy professionals, policymakers, activists, and others read it and consider its implications carefully. But because this issue is so important, and generally under-acknowledged, we need to scrutinize DeBrabander’s arguments closely.
First, though, we need to define some terms. Early on in the book, DeBrabander warns that one reason privacy is so hard to protect is that it’s hard to define. This is in fact a problem within the growing field of information privacy, and privacy professionals must often coordinate with others in the fields of security, civil rights, legal compliance, data ethics, and more to determine what constitutes a privacy issue (or at least, a primarily privacy-related issue). “Life After Privacy” relates many examples of concerns dubbed “privacy” concerns that involve compromises of control, autonomy, and trust. For many authors discussing privacy, privacy appears to exist somewhere around the intersection of these topics. A more concrete definition has been proposed by philosopher Michael Lynch—a privacy violation is “A violation of one’s autonomy as it applies to determining what information about one’s self we choose to share.” DeBrabander acknowledges that other definitions are possible. Dan Solove, he notes, approaches the topic differently, and thinks of privacy concerns existing within a “taxonomy of privacy,” a set of privacy-related issues including, surveillance, identity theft, breaches of confidentiality, appropriation, and blackmail. DeBrabander does not fully commit to Lynch’s definition (or, implied definition), instead noting that privacy is contextual, and implying that what constitutes a “privacy” issue may depend on factors unique to each situation. But he does return to Lynch’s construction, and most of his analyses align with it.
I look at DeBrabander’s argument as having three parts (although he is not explicit in structuring it this way). In the first part, DeBrabander contends that privacy incursions are ubiquitous, pernicious, and often hard to detect. This first contention is hard to deny, and he provides the reader with plenty of examples. The most disturbing aspect of many of these instances is that the data subjects not only permit organizations to collect information about themselves, they do so willingly or eagerly. Many innovations, some exciting or apparently beneficial, also pose threats to autonomy and seclusion. For example: department stores may track your purchases, and use this information to offer you deals and inform you of products that may meet your needs; but they may divine from your purchases the most intimate details of your life. Facebook will connect you to dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people, and help you maintain friendships and contacts; but will develop a profile of you based on what you choose to view and what information holds your attention. Methods of evaluating individuals’ purchasing and borrowing power offer alternatives for those without a traditional credit history; but some, like China’s “social credit” scheme, will diminish your score based on your personal associations, encouraging you to sever social ties. Employers may encourage you to use wearable devices to help improve your health, and thereby lower their overhead for group health insurance plans; but in the future, they may abuse this technology and monitor your sleep patterns, or your comings and goings into the office, and make inferences about you as an employee. Driverless cars may in the future deliver you safely to your destination; but a record will now exist of your every move and destination. The list of such possible compromises of privacy is very long, and in many cases these uses would not even be illegal in the United States. DeBrabander notes that, whether legally permissible or not, many of these actions are “creepy:” “When something is creepy, we mean to say we suspect it is wrong, or there is something potentially damaging or dangerous about it, but we are unsure what it is.” The discussion of such problematic uses of technology are in fact alarming, and at around this point in the book DeBrabander begins referring to those who collect and use this information as “our spies.”
The second part of DeBrabander’s argument states that privacy is integral to democracy. He asserts that “our founding fathers,” for example, were concerned about privacy and its relationship to government. Most of his evidence for this consists of noting that some writers and thinkers, prior to the founding of the United States, contended that solitude is necessary to developing one’s opinions, beliefs, and character. For example, he provides a lengthy review of the work of the Stoics, explaining their views on “emotional resilience and equilibrium” in some detail. “According to [Stoicism’s] advocates, privacy is that space where I can be alone, uncorrupted and untouched by outside influences; and in my isolation, I may have or develop or discover the autonomy to shape my opinions and outlook, my emotional state and personality, and fate,” he says. He finds further support for the connection between privacy and the development of individual values in various Christian writings, noting that some of these require a consciousness achieved through “profound, sincere reflection and prayer, and honest assessment of one’s sins,” activities that must be achieved in private. He finds explicit examples of this connection in sources including Matthew 6: 5-6: “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place….” These ideas, he claims, had direct effects on conceptions of privacy in Europe that ultimately influenced privacy in the United States.
Finally, DeBrabander contends that given that privacy is under assault from so many actors, in so many ways, that individuals (or even associations) may not long be able to maintain the privacy necessary to democracy.
All three of these claims, however, are open to at least some challenges. With respect to his first claim, while privacy is certainly at risk—notably in the United States, which appears to be DeBrabander’s primary concern, although he never explicitly states this—not all of his examples support this contention directly. DeBrabander shifts his frames of reference rather suddenly. For example, while he is concerned with how privacy may have mattered to “the founding fathers” (a term most often associated with the U.S.), many of his examples are drawn from other countries, some of which are not democracies and don’t even pretend to protect democratic rights. Many other examples are threats to our autonomy or well-being, but are aimed at changing our desires or buying habits, rather than our political beliefs or participation. And some technologies he reviews do in fact have potentially frightening alternative uses, but for many of these, malicious uses have not been currently documented, but merely considered, or piloted and abandoned. DeBrabander succeeds in demonstrating that privacy is fragile—few could disagree. But not all of his arguments point to current threats to the autonomous development of individuals’ political ideals in the United States. Some such threats are possible, but perhaps not as imminent as he implies.
In his second contention, DeBrabander seeks support for the idea that privacy is critical to democracy. Here, again, I think many people would agree. It’s hard, for example, to reconcile democracy with a totalitarian surveillance state. But DeBrabander seeks support for this contention largely by noting that certain philosophical movements seem aligned with the idea that solitude and time for reflection is necessary for studying and absorbing the principles of those same movements. Individuals may then pursue those ideals when participating in democratic processes. Solitude is, of course, not the same as privacy (as he admits); and this argument doesn’t quite jibe with Lynch’s formulation of the elements of a privacy violation. I would have appreciated just a little more connecting of the dots here—yes, famously, many of the “founding fathers” were exceptionally well-versed in the classics and philosophy, but do we have any illustrations of the direct intellectual influence of the Stoics or specific Biblical passages? If we deem this evidence insufficient, we are left to our own intuitions as to whether we agree that privacy and solace are, in this particular way, necessary to democracy. The argument is intriguing, but hard to support empirically.
Many readers may have that intuition—they may agree, or at least suspect, that developing one’s individual commitments requires unstructured time and reflection. But as DeBrabander points out, even those who have been trained in critical thought and afforded time and space to do so, may be merely capable of “relational autonomy.” Citing the work of Marilyn Friedman, DeBrabander notes that we “develop the competency for autonomy through social interaction with other persons. These developments take place in a context of values, meanings, and modes of self-reflection that cannot exist except as constituted by social practices.” DeBrabander acknowledges that this concept raises some questions that peck away at his thesis: “Who is to say … if my decisions post-reflection are so independent and self-driven and self-conscious after all? Do they really depart from the tradition I reject, for example?” He never quite answers these questions, and merely acknowledges they undermine the idea that we can reach truly independent political beliefs, that “we are each a self-creation,” and does not resolve this potential objection to his claim.
With respect to the third part of DeBrabander’s argument—that incursions into privacy may be significant enough to damage democracy—well, even if you don’t buy DeBrabander’s other claims, the possible connection between intrusion into autonomy and the political health of democracies is worrisome. Strong evidence exists, for example, that agents outside of the United States sought to affect the 2016 election by sending false and misleading information over social media. However, not all of these efforts meet Lynch’s characterization of violations of privacy.
In his final chapter before his conclusion, DeBrabander attempts to offer some encouraging insights. These, however, do not quite rise to the claim made by the book’s subtitle (“Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society”). First, he notes that the loss of privacy has an upside: those with hateful, bigoted, insupportable beliefs can be exposed in the clear light of day. “White supremacists strive to fit in or lay low, but we ought to encourage them to stand out, and state their differences—as we all should. Racist views can be addressed better this way.” He acknowledges that this is a “tricky proposition,” but takes issue with attempts to stifle or suppress such views. What exactly the mechanics should be of encouraging bigots to stand out—to fail to exercise their own privacy and expose themselves—is a little unclear. He discourages what he sees as a strong trend on college campuses to provide “safe spaces,” which leave students “increasingly unable and unprepared for life in the public realm.” Such a contention is not new: We’ve heard many times that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and “the only appropriate response to repugnant speech is more speech.” But of course such safe spaces were and are contained; they have boundaries, within the institutions where they are sponsored. They could be said to protect the very form of privacy—space for solace and reflection—that he has earlier praised as vital. And beyond this criticism, DeBrabander doesn’t offer any more insight into what platforms we should provide white supremacists and other repugnant people, and how much we permit them to assume a place in public discourse and assume political power.
DeBrabander’s views here seem to contradict his earlier warnings about a supposed trend toward more voluntary disclosures. Early in the book he laments the loss of “pre-internet rules of etiquette,” and what he believes are changing mores concerning formerly-private thoughts and experiences. In those earlier passages, he appears to be urging more discretion; in these later sections, he seems to be urging more disclosure of intimate thoughts. For example, he reacts with horror to an acquaintance committing an act he deems to be oversharing: “[s]he broaches a new frontier,” he sniffs, “and posts close-up pictures of her breastfeeding, which leaves little to the imagination.” DeBrabander acknowledges that many such social media posts may seek to de-mystify or normalize previously shunned behavior or attributes, but declines to explore such ideas further. I don’t know how he would reconcile his distaste expressed here with his encouragements to his readers to stand out and state our differences, “as we all should.” Perhaps he’s urging his readers to exercise discretion, while allowing their intellectual opponents to render themselves vulnerable?
He further suggests that political activists avoid specific pitfalls of online coordination. Dependence on the internet, with its concomitant risks to privacy and tendency for oversharing, may not be helpful to progressive movements. He notes that many social movements that originated or grew online—Egyptian resistance to Hosni Mubarak, the Occupy Wall Street movement, a 2013 movement centered in Istanbul—grew too quickly, and organized too “horizontally” to be effective. These movements, he claims, lacked clear goals, and had no recognized leadership with whom those in power could negotiate. He suggests that truly effective organizing—such as that of the American civil rights movement—requires face-to-face meeting and negotiation, and the long-term development of social ties and shared missions. He claims that the three examples he provides largely or completely failed, for these reasons. Even Black Lives Matter, he claims, suffered a harsh setback with the election of Donald Trump, many of whose supporters were vocal opponents. But while many of these movements experienced setbacks, they also made some advances, and most notably among these advances were the awareness and support they generated via use of online organizing. His attempts to contrast these efforts with the American civil rights movement are also blunted somewhat by the fact that, while that movement succeeded in meeting many of its defined goals, its work is far from over.
What would he make of other social movements that succeeded in bringing formerly-suppressed or hidden injustices to light? Surely, many of the acts that initiated these efforts were not mere oversharing or futile attempts to leverage the internet. The #metoo movement, the exposure of high-profile serial harassers and sexual assaulters, the exposure of institutions that have harbored or even fostered patterns of abuse—all of these have been exposed and ameliorated largely because enough people were able to use digital media to find each other, document their shared experiences, and gather evidence. Certain kinds of abuse thrive on silence—call it enforced or imposed privacy—and changing methods of communication have exposed many people who have abused their power.
Ultimately, these recommendations fall short of providing the weapons to combat threats to democracy. I’m not sure what else I was expecting: Technical tools to avoid tracking one’s activities? Legislation requiring greater transparency? Broader-reaching legislation, addressing multiple industries, as has been done in the European Union? Better efforts at identifying organizations that seek to exploit our data? Offers of privacy protections as valued features of online retailers? Many of these solutions have been proposed and may help reclaim at least some of the territory we’ve lost. DeBrabander addresses some of them, but fears that even these steps are insufficient in light of the magnitude and perniciousness of the problem.
“Life After Privacy” does not meet all of its goals. It does, however, raise new concerns that align with existing, well-documented ones, and these are worth exploring further. “Life After Privacy” provides a thorough and clear introduction to a complex and important subject, and warns us, and perhaps helps us steel ourselves, against surveillance and attempts at manipulation.
 DeBrabander, Firmin, Life After Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 22 (citing Michael Lynch, The Internet of Us (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2016, at 103).
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