Book review: Privacy Is Power

Book cover for Privacy Is Power: Why And How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data by Carissa Veliz

Privacy is a topic I take seriously, especially as it relates to the data we generate and share online. I’m sure that I come across as paranoid at times, if not all the time, with my refusal to engage in social media and my concerns over browser usage and the sites I frequent while online. Yes, maybe I can take it to the extreme, but the more I read about how companies, governments, and the powers that be use our data, I worry that I may not be taking it seriously enough.

It’s articles like this one that showed up in my feed from Smashing Magazine, Pushing Back Against Privacy Infringement on the Web, that raises online privacy warning flags for me. Our personal data is being used, sometimes for our benefit, sometimes against us, and always for the benefit and profit of the companies that collect, analyze and trade it.

The article is a short read and provides a good overview on the importance of privacy on the internet. But it was the mentions in the further reading that intrigued me. I wanted to go deeper into why privacy is important, which led me to reading Privacy Is Power: Why And How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data by Carissa Veliz.

To be clear, this is a tough book review for me to write. I do my best to keep these reviews short and to the point, but privacy is a hard topic to summarize in a couple of hundred words or less, especially when it’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. I first wrote about the topic in 2013, and the points made in that article are just as relevant today as they were then (A list of articles I’ve previously published can be found at the bottom of this post). So what I am going to do here is highlight some of the more relevant points Veliz makes in Privacy Is Power.

One of most important points she makes is that the internet is funded by the data economy – the collection, analysis, and trade of data. It means we are not users of the internet, we are the product. Companies collect the data we share about ourselves, analyze it, package it, trade it, and, ultimately, profit handsomely from it. One need look no further than the balance sheets of Google, Meta (Facebook), Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple to see how much money there is to be made in the data economy.

She effectively debunks the myths “I have nothing to hide” and “they already have all my data and know everything” statements that people hide behind when confronted about privacy. Privacy matters because the lack of it gives others power over us. As Veliz states, “powerful people and institutions make us act and think differently from the way we would in the absence of their influence.” Bottom line, companies are using data both to profit from it and to exercise power over us to influence our behaviors and actions to further their agenda, whether we agree with it or not.

Another privacy myth she takes on is the justification of threats such as terrorism and epidemics to justify privacy invasions under the guise of keeping us “safe.” The problem she so astutely points out is that these threats are never going away. The risk of a terrorist attack or an epidemic is perpetual. It’s like the “temporary” taxes levied to fund short-term disaster relief initiatives. Eroding privacy by saying it will be rolled back when ‘such-and-such’ threat wanes is like enacting new taxes claimed to be temporary – they never go away once the powers that be get a hold of the additional power (taxation is effectively a form of power transfer).

Another important point that is made in the book – privacy is a collective concern. Whether intentional or not, our personal data inherently contains the personal data of others. Therefore, one person cannot act in isolation to take back their privacy. It requires the efforts of everyone to come together if we want to have control of our personal data. If we don’t come together as a group to protect our privacy, then none of us will be permitted to enjoy the privacy we desire, and that we deserve. Veliz likens this to an individual verifying whether the ingredients in our food are safe. Since it’s impossible for one individual to verify the ingredients in every food, we’ve put in place regulatory bodies to control it. Similarly, individuals alone cannot solve all the privacy problems we face. However, we can work together to motivate both governments and businesses to protect our privacy.

These are just a few of the many big ideas that Veliz tackles in Privacy Is Power. For me, the book was a reminder of how important our privacy is. It’s easy to forget about it. It takes constant, regular reminders for us to recognize that our privacy continues to be eroded, bit by bit. It’s like beach erosion. We don’t notice the sand washing into the sea each day, but before we know it, the beach is gone. And once it’s gone, we can’t bring it back, at least not without a lot of effort. So the best solution is to stop it from eroding in the first place.

So the short summary for Privacy Is Power is that it is a must read. It’s not because it’s extremely well written, reveals anything new, or has any great recommendations. It’s a must read because it will raise your awareness on why privacy matters. It will expose why we, collectively as users, need to move away from the “they already know everything so who cares” and “I have nothing to hide so it doesn’t matter” attitudes toward privacy. There are lots of reasons why we should care, and perhaps Veliz puts it best when she says, “When people collect personal data, there is a tendency to imagine it ending up in the best possible hands and being used for good. But sensitive data is so prone to abuse, so valuable, and so hard to keep safe, that it is much more realistic to imagine it ending up in the worse possible hands, given enough time and data transfers.” And that alone should be enough to make you care about and understand why our collective privacy matters.

References to other posts on privacy that I’ve written through the years:

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