The Governance of Privacy. Policy Instruments in a Global Perspective
by Bennett, Colin and Charles Raab

MIT Press 2006.
ISBN 0-262-52453-8. $30.00 (paperback), index, bibliography, endnotes

Reviewed by  Robert Bruen   July 12, 2006 

Privacy is is one the most important issues in society today. Technology seems to have eroded what little privacy people may have had in the past. For security and privacy specialists, the issue is generally framed using technology concerns using technical terminology. However, privacy has many other dimensions that must be considered, such as philosophical, social, political, legal and economic, among others. The issues are sensitive because individuals are affected when, for example, a secret is revealed which causes harm, such as discrimination. Today, if it is discovered that you or a relative has cancer, you might not be able to get insurance coverage.

Information about each person ranges from name, address, national identification number to medical history and financial information. During the past few years theft of databases from colleges, government agencies and businesses has become rampant. Most of the thefts were allowed by technical incompetence. The problem is getting worse, not better and is unlikely to improve in the near future. The privacy problem is a complex one that will not be solved by technology alone, thus it is the interest of technologists to learn about other approaches.

Bennett and Raab have put together an excellent work in the political science world. The book is scholarly and well researched, but accessible. One approach is the philosophical one, where debates happen over topics such as whether or not privacy is a natural right. While these discussions are important, they generally do not produce practical results. The political world is where practical results are possible. Governance is more than simply enacting laws, it is building institutions and providing direction, especially important in the international environment of today. Viewpoints on privacy vary considerably between even the close cultures of Europe and the United States. Whatever differences Americans may see amongst themselves, the situation is far more complex when the whole world is involved.

The Governance of Privacy has three main parts: (1) Policy Goals (2) Policy Instruments and (3) Policy Impacts. The authors expand the notions of privacy from concerns of the surveillance society and databases, which are mainly legal and technical in nature, to include areas of public policy and social concerns. They also note the competing interests of people who want to be left alone and the legitimate business and governmental interests to know about consumers and citizens. The global environment leads to different approaches, creating a patchwork in which businesses might flock to the less regulated places, not unlike the banking industry. In America, the federal government has been secretly tracking transactions of individuals, resulting in total loss of privacy. In Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, the banks have been happy to hold your money without sharing information with anyone (more or less). These differences affect where people deposit their money.

This book is an excellent addition to my privacy collection and is highly recommended to technical people for expanding thought on the issues of privacy. My personal and unsolicited take is an economic one: we all should copyright our personal information and get paid whenever someone sells any of it.