Privacy encompasses the real and virtual spaces where you can think your most heretical thoughts without the fear of social and political consequences and where you can seal the bonds of love and friendship. In Privacy, Garret Keizer grapples with the meaning and importance of maintaining places where we are left alone to think what we will, love whom we must, and bear the indignities of life's pratfalls.
But Keizer, a Harper's Magazine contributing editor, turns out to be a curmudgeonly and somewhat uncertain guide to the threats to privacy posed by the modern world—and he is no guide at all to practical proposals for countering those dangers. There are two chief sources of danger to our privacy: commerce (snooping by businesses eager to send targeted advertisements and spam through Web browsers and email) and government, with its myriad and burgeoning forms of surveillance and data-gathering.
With regard to modern commerce, Keizer grumps: "We would do well to ask if the capitalist economy and its obsessions with smart marketing and technological innovation cannot become as intrusive as any authoritarian state." Actually, no. If consumers become sufficiently annoyed with mercantile snooping and excessive marketing, they can take their business to competitors who are more respectful of privacy. Not so with the citizens of an intrusive state.
"If privacy is the right to be let alone, then technology is our ever-expanding ability to let nothing alone," Keizer writes. It is true that commercial enterprises now collect vast amounts of information concerning the activities, spending habits, and tastes of their customers. Most of the time the data are used to figure out how to sell something. Like millions of Americans, I carry "club" cards for grocery stores and pharmacies that tell the retailers what I buy, information I willingly surrender in exchange for discounts and coupons. I don't feel the need to guard my preference for a particular brand of soap from a retailer's prying eyes. Nearly all vendors make available their privacy policies, and if you don't like them, you can go elsewhere.
Other transactions and communications, of course, have greater significance. Political and religious dissidents, and even viewers of online pornography, will likely be more concerned about shielding their interests from scrutiny. While Keizer is certainly right that technology can enable the invasion of privacy, he doesn't acknowledge that technology can also guard it. Seekers of online privacy, for example, can take advantage of free anonymizing services like TOR, which masks the identities of computers connected to the Internet, and Cryptocat, which encrypts online chat sessions. "The central question is whether we hold privacy sacred enough to endure the inconveniences necessary to preserve it," Keizer says. That hundreds of thousands of people use TOR every day is evidence that many are already willing to endure inconveniences to preserve their privacy. And more tech-enabled privacy tools are on the way. That's all to the good, since the chief privacy problem is coming from the government.
In his 2009 book, American Privacy, Frederick S. Lane asserts: "At its core, the history of America is the history of the right to privacy." After all, what is the Fourth Amendment's guarantee—"the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated"—if not substantially a guarantee of the right to privacy?
Unfortunately, traditional defenses against government intrusion are being steadily eroded. Keizer cites Rule of Law, Misrule of Men (2010), where Harvard professor Elaine Scarry outlines how the misbegotten USA Patriot Act, passed in panic following the 9/11 atrocities, has turned the constitutional understanding of private citizens and open government upside down: "Our inner lives become transparent, and the workings of the government become opaque."
Keizer shares her concern about government surveillance, but—typically—offers little useful guidance, satisfying himself with condemning his fellow citizens as feckless: "It is not the Constitution that is being subverted by Big Brother so much as the will to resist, without which there never could have been a Constitution in the first place." Still, it's worth recalling the Pentagon's attempt to deploy Total Information Awareness, in which a gigantic data-mining enterprise would troll through commercial and government databases to generate data profiles of any American based on his credit-card purchases, travel itineraries, telephone records, email, medical histories, and financial information.
Public outrage supposedly stopped the program, yet it turns out that the National Security Agency is building a huge data center in Utah that may well realize the earlier program's surveillance goals. Even now, according to a 2010 article in the Washington Post, "every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications." News reports in July revealed that, in the past year alone, cellphone carriers responded to 1.3 million demands from law enforcement for subscriber records, including text messages and caller locations. Keizer asserts, rightly, that "the ultimate check on government as a whole is its inability to know everything about those it governs." State ignorance is its citizenry's bliss.
Keizer overplays the role of left-wing gadfly—he mentions Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Japanese-American internment during World War II, and other touchstones of government perfidy—but he does address matters of vital importance to all of us. "There are many good reasons to stand up for privacy," Keizer says, "some having to do with building a good society, others having to do with living a tolerable life." It would have been helpful if he had given more thought to just how we should go about standing up for privacy. Even so, his passionate exhortations may move readers themselves to think about defending their privacy more fiercely.
This review originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on August 15, 2012.