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Home > Privacy Fundamentals > Book Reviews > No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society

Book Review: No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society, Robert O'Harrow, Jr., New York: Free Press, 348 pages

If you are concerned with the growing "surveillance-industrial complex," Robert O'Harrow's No Place to Hide is highly recommended reading. If you weren't aware of it before, this book is mandatory.

No Place to Hide reveals the large and growing role of data and technology companies in government surveillance programs. Nowhere is privacy more threatened than in the crossover between private data and the public sector. Each chapter of this well-researched and -written book focuses on how private data may be deployed for governmental purposes. A fascinating array of innovative people and aggressively growing companies are involved. O'Harrow covers them all.

O'Harrow, whose regular job is with the Washington Post, has done a great job as both a reporter and a writer. The book brings a potentially dry topic to life, yet avoids sensationalism or preaching. Thoughtful readers should be sensationalized enough just by discovering the quantum of effort going into "solving" the terrorism problem through surveillance of ordinary Americans.

Most of the movers O'Harrow covers are motivated by both profit and a genuine desire to protect the country from terror attacks like the ones that occurred on September 11, 2001. At their worst, these are the most acute victims of, and collaborators with, terror. They would abandon constitutional principles and limited government to provide transient security.

To many readers, No Place to Hide will be a first introduction to the substantial and growing consumer data industry, one that still operates largely behind the scenes. The book is not a balanced assessment of that industry or its role in the economy. Consumers enjoy substantial benefits when data is used to improve business decision-making, through lower interest and insurance rates, for example.

But a balanced account is not O'Harrow's purpose. His purpose is to warn. Aggressive courtship of government surveillance by this industry could inspire a reaction against all collection and use of consumer information, but that would be an unfortunate overreaction. A better response would control the use of data, private or public, by governments. A revision of the Privacy Act and a return to Fourth Amendment principles in law enforcement would be a start.

No Place to Hide is a great and important book. Read it, and use it to introduce others to the emerging "surveillance-industrial complex."


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[updated 01/31/05]

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