Privacy and the Information Age

Article excerpt

Privacy and the Information Age. Serge Gutwirth. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2002. viii, 152 pp. $60 hbk. $22.95 pbk.

Concerns over privacy have grown as Americans become increasingly aware of marketing practices such as online data-mining and proposed national security measures such as the government's "Total Information Awareness" program, which would create a mega-database by combining government and private sector information on individuals. Still, privacy has only recently become a political issue for a nation of consumers who routinely trade personal information for cents-off coupons at the grocery store.

In Privacy and the Information Age, Serge Gutwirth examines privacy from a distinctly European point of view that looks at privacy as a safeguard of personal freedom: a right fundamental to democracy, inalienable, and unquestionably not for sale. According to Gutwirth, the digital age has only hastened the infringement of privacy by governmental and private interests that value efficiency and competitiveness over individual freedom and control.

The concept of privacy is broader than personal data protection, of course. In the United States, the legal definition of privacy includes "the right to be left alone," an idea that dates back to the seminal law review article in 1890 by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, and a less clearly outlined right to control one's own identity, encompassing issues of misappropriation, identity theft, and data control. Other cultures have altogether different notions of privacy. In one of the book's most interesting chapters, Gutwirth surveys privacy across cultures, noting that the Western concept of privacy is at odds with other cultures, from communitarian societies in Africa to orthodox Muslim communities. In Japan, he writes, the English word "privacy" does not even have a Japanese equivalent.

The author, a law professor at the Free University of Brussels and the Erasmus University Rotterdam, is perhaps most familiar with the European Union, which has already set up privacy protections that are broader than anything in place in the United States. American consumers can prevent the collection and resale of their data only through sometimes-cumbersome "opt-out" procedures and are often unaware that their personal information is being collected and used by commercial entities. Consumers in Europe, on the other hand, have a good deal of legal control over their personal data, including the right to "opt-in" to data collection and the right to alter their data and purge it from the database after a certain period of time. …