Archive for December, 2009

Book Review: Privacy in Peril by James B. Rule

Rule, James B. 2007. Privacy in peril: How we are sacrificing a fundamental right in exchange for security and convenience. New York: Oxford University Press. 232 pages. $15.95.

James B. Rule’s Privacy in Peril splashes a cold glass of reality on readers unaware of private industry’s and the government’s legal use of our personal and private data.  In his latest book, Rule, a Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society at U.C. Berkeley, uses his 1973 book, Private Lives & Public Surveillance, as a springboard to discuss the history of surveillance and data collection, as well as the radical changes in technology and public opinion since the 1970s.  Rule argues the biggest threat to our privacy is not computer hackers and identity thieves, but rather the legalized surveillance, collection, and use of personal data by the government, credit, insurance, and advertising industries, and other interested third parties.  Rule writes that we too willingly hand over our personal information in the name of security and convenience.  However, we fail to realize that once we consent, we can no longer control how our information is used and to whom it is given.  Ultimately, Rule argues the solution lies not in technology-policy reform, but rather, in large-scale political and ethical changes.  These changes include widespread acceptance “that more privacy will often mean less efficiency- less profit, less convenience, more institutional waste, and sometimes less safety and justice.”

Privacy in Peril’s educational value, length, and price make it an appropriate addition to any academic law library.  However, if your library already owns the 2007 hardbound edition, there is no need to purchase the 2009 paperback edition because Rule has added no new content.  Overall, this exciting, yet ominous read packs a considerable amount of history and insight into a mere 200 pages.  The book is divided into four parts (“The Making of an Issue,” “Government Surveillance,” “Personal Data in the Marketplace: Credit, Insurance, and Advertising,” and “The Future of Privacy”) and numerous subparts.  The book also contains a bibliography and fairly detailed index considering the book’s brevity.

Privacy in Peril’s true worth lies in the rich historical and international context Rule provides for his arguments.   I found it fascinating not only to learn about the history of surveillance and data collection in our country, but also to see the similarities and differences with Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and France.  Such international and historical comparisons allow the reader to more fully understand the erosion of privacy rights worldwide and how the U.S. is both influencing and being influenced by other countries.

Unfortunately, while Rule does rely on credible sources, the number of endnotes is rather slim (about 25 per part).  Moreover, the 2009 paperback release of Rule’s 2007 Privacy in Peril has not been updated.  Thus, someone looking for current information will be frustrated to discover that most of the documents and examples on which Rule relies are from 2005 or earlier.  Five years can be a lifetime with technology-driven issues, such as privacy.

Despite its shortcomings, Privacy in Peril is not only an educational and entertaining read, but also a strong addition to an academic law library’s privacy law collection.  Unlike other books on privacy, such as Daniel J. Solove’s Understanding Privacy, Privacy in Peril does not focus on abstract or theoretical concepts of privacy.  Instead, Rule provides us with concrete examples and comparisons which many students and researchers will find refreshing.

Donna J. Bowman, Research and Faculty Services Librarian- Underwood Law Library-SMU Dedman School of Law

December 2009

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