"Privacy is Power", by Carissa Véliz

Book Notes

Available at: Amazon [NOT an affiliate link]

TL;DR: Even if you think you have nothing to hide or that you are a 'nobody' and no one cares about your data, your privacy is at stake; protect it.


My key takeaways

  1. "Privacy is as collective as it is personal": Privacy is usually associated with concerns about safeguarding an individual's data. However, as is pointed out in the book, your data also contains information about people 'like' you, so if you are comfortable with sharing all your details online, you are inherently compromising the right to privacy of other individuals. To add to this, it can also damage entire societies, e.g., by pushing us towards a state of totalitarianism.
  2. "No individual has the moral authority to sell their data": The proposal of applying property rights to data seems to have gained some traction lately. However, due to the interconnectedness of private data (as pointed out in the previous point) it appears that treating data as private property would in fact not be the correct approach.
  3. "We should bind institutions that collect and manage personal data to fiduciary duties": Currently, organisations prioritise their stakeholders over their customers. The author points out that imposing fiduciary duties would create a legal obligation for the companies to act in the best interest of their customers, putting the needs of the customers first when a conflict arises. This is particularly helpful given the current asymmetry in power between an organisation and its customers.
  4. "It is not in the interest of most companies to invest in security": Investing in security is a slow and expensive process which does not bring immediate benefits to the organisation when compared to its competitors. Thus, the author suggests the need for governmental regulations to combat this issue.
  5. "Don't do DNA tests for fun!": This one really hit me hard. There was a time two years ago, when genealogy tests were all the rage and I really wanted to try one for fun. I am so glad that I did not! DNA tests jeopardise information not just about you, but also about all your relatives, all your ancestors, and all future generations to come. Given this, I am sure no one would ever want to do these tests just for the sake of it again!

Who should read this book?

The book is mainly targeted at people who believe in the narrative that 'privacy is not a big deal'. But even if, like me, you feel that privacy is important, the book has some really interesting insights and takeaways.

Why should you read this book?

The book starts with a 'Day in the life' narrative that details all the points throughout the day an average tech user loses their private data. This chapter will definitely leave you with chills, but will also make you more mindful of your tech usage. I feel this chapter alone warrants a reading of this book. Other than that, the book covers:

  • examples of data misuse from the past
  • the current state of data collection and what led us here
  • what the future might look like if we continue down this path
  • suggestions for policy-makers
  • simple actionable advice for individuals

Resources that were mentioned in the book

  • Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger
  • Zed, by Joanna Kavenna
  • 1984, by George Orwell
  • The Circle, by Dave Eggers
  • The Truman Show

My key highlights

  • "They track and record all they can: our location, our communications, our internet searches, our biometric information, our social relations, our purchases, and much more. They want to know who we are, what we think, where we hurt. They want to predict and influence our behaviour. They have too much power. Their power stems from us, from you, from your data. It’s time to take back control. Reclaiming privacy is the only way we can regain control of our lives and our societies." - pg 1
  • "The surveillance society has transformed citizens into users and data subjects." - pg 3
  • "Pondering your mortality, it dawns on you that violations of your right to privacy will not stop with your death. You will keep on living online. Scavengers will keep living off the trail of data you leave behind. And perhaps that data may still affect your son and his offspring. It may also affect the way your life is perceived by others – your post-mortem reputation." - pg 25
  • "The contrast between today’s privacy landscape and that of the 1990s is stark. At the end of the twentieth century, your car was a car – it wasn’t interested in the music you like, it didn’t listen to your conversations, it didn’t track your weight, it didn’t record your comings and goings. Your car took you where you wanted to go. It served you. You didn’t serve it." - pg 27
  • "We should worry about our private data being collected even if no one is using it at the moment for evil purposes – data often gets misused eventually." - pg 34
  • "Crises are dangerous for civil liberties. During crises, decisions are taken without carefully considering pros, cons, evidence, and alternatives. Whenever there is the slightest resistance to a proposed extreme measure, an appeal to ‘saving lives’ silences dissenters." - pg 41
  • "Data collection doesn’t cut our flesh or make us bleed, it doesn’t infect our lungs making it hard to breathe. But data collection is poisoning our lives, institutions, and societies. It just takes time for the consequences to unfold. Personal data is toxic, but it’s a slow-acting poison." - pg 43
  • "Privacy matters because the lack of it gives others power over you." - pg 48
  • "You might think you have nothing to hide, nothing to fear. You are wrong – unless you are an exhibitionist with masochistic desires about suffering identity theft, discrimination, joblessness, public humiliation, and totalitarianism, among other misfortunes. You have plenty to hide, plenty to fear, and the fact that you don’t go around publishing your passwords or giving copies of your keys to strangers attests to that. You might think your privacy is safe because you are a nobody – nothing special, interesting or important to see here. Don’t short-change yourself. If you weren’t that important, businesses and governments wouldn’t be going to so much trouble to spy on you." - pg 48
  • "A big part of the power of tech lies in narratives, in the stories that get told about our data. The data economy has succeeded in normalizing certain ways of thinking. Tech wants you to believe that, if you have done nothing wrong, you have no reason to object to their holding your data." - pg 59
  • "Not all technological progress counts as progress." - pg 61
  • "Personal data is dangerous because it is sensitive, highly susceptible to misuse, hard to keep safe, and desired by many." - pg 92
  • "Personalized ads fracture the public sphere into individual parallel realities. If each of us lives in a different reality because we are exposed to dramatically different content, what chance do we stand of having healthy political debates?" - pg 107
  • "Surveillance teaches self-censorship." - pg 157
  • "Progress is defending people’s human rights, not undermining them. An economic model that depends on the systematic violation of people’s rights does not constitute progress." - pg 158
  • "Protecting your privacy is not illegal; it is outrageous that we are made to feel as if it were." - pg 189
  • "Not all tech is bad. A world in which we can enjoy privacy doesn’t need to be one deprived of technology. We just need the right tech with the right rules in place. Good tech does not force-feed you. It is there to enhance your autonomy, to help you achieve your own goals, as opposed to tech’s goals. Good tech tells it to you straight – no fine print, no under-the-table snatching of your data, no excuses, and no apologies. Good tech works for you. You are its client. Not advertisers, not data brokers, not governments. You’re not only a user, and never a subject, but a citizen who is also a customer. Good tech respects our rights and our liberal democracies. Good tech protects your privacy." - pg 205