The End of Privacy
Charles Sykes
Sr. Martin's Press
282 pages, index, end notes
1999.  ISBN 0-312-20530-0. LoC JC596.2 U5S95 $24.95

Reviewed by:  Robert Bruen    August 4, 2000

Charles Sykes looks at privacy through the lens of  "Personal Rights in the Surveillance Society," the book's subtitle. As with all the books on privacy, there is a history of how we got to where we are and just how bad it is. And it is bad. He concentrates less on web sites and the ubiquitous spy-cams and more the dataweb that is capturing information about each of us then merging the information from the many points-of-capture into a virtual representation of us. 

Although The End of Privacy is not a long book, it covers a lot of ground. It has four main parts: The Attack on Privacy; The Surveillance Society; The Snoop Wars; and The Exposure Culture. The first is the required explanation for what is happening and why it matters, in case the reader has been without human contact for a decade or so. 

The Surveillance Society is the best part of the book, including chapters on the courts and Congress with laws made, challenged and enforced. We all know that rights get chipped away piece by piece, best exemplified by case law. The chapter on medical privacy should be enough to convince even the most stringent opposition to privacy rights that something is fundamentally wrong.

It was pleasing to a chapter on genetic privacy which seems to be glossed over by many writers as something that is probably important, but not something to spend much time with. Genetics is one of the most important aspects of privacy for everyone because our genome is the definition of who we are. We are the results of our experiences, but we start out with a very specific definition. Knowing that definition allows others to know a lot about you. Knowing that you have a gene or mutation that raises the probability of contracting some form of cancer by an early age does not mean you will contract that cancer, but you may be stigmatized or discriminated against by an insurance company who does not want to take any risk at all. 

If you thought that the various forms of discrimination (race, gender, color, national origin, etc) were insidious, just wait until you see what genetic discrimination will be like. The protections against this must begin now, not later. Sykes has figured this out. 

The rest of the book has two main themes (after some more on surveillance in the workplace and by the government). Although I really hoped I would never see or hear about Princess Diana and the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair, the author brings it back to the top of the heap. Reluctantly though, I have to agree that this was appropriate because those that watched TV and bought books, newspapers and magazines when these events were covered show why are privacy is ending: we are helping. If we are going to spend time and money peering into the lives of other people, how can we expect them not to look into our lives? 

The final chapter of the book presents some thoughts on how we can deal with the problem, with suggestions ranging from "let's give everyone a national ID card and forget this privacy nonsense" to "since our privacy is gone, let's make sure that everyone's private information is public." It seems to me that our privacy is gone. The most important challenge is how we are going to deal with this fact. If everyone can know everything about everybody, what are we going to do everyday? 

This was an enjoyable book to read with lots of notes and references. It would have been helpful if there was a separate bibliography, but in general, it is another good book on privacy, especially since the title hits the nail on the head.