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Home > Privacy Fundamentals > Book Reviews > Privacy and Freedom

Book Review: Privacy and Freedom, by Alan Westin, New York: Atheneum, 487 pages

Considering the influence of 1967's Privacy and Freedom and its author Alan Westin even today, one picks up this book with high expectations. The book is not disappointing, but it is quite different from what the reader expects.

Privacy and Freedom does not elucidate a general theory of privacy as implied by the sweeping title. Rather, it is a window onto the privacy concerns of an important past era. Developments since the book was written make some of its sections quaint, while other sections have had influence well beyond what Westin apparently anticipated, given the time and attention he gave them.

As to a general theory, Westin opens the book as follows: "Few values so fundamental to society have been left so undefined in social theory or have been the subject of such vague and confused writing by social scientists." Amen, brother.

Westin briefly states a theory on that same opening page. It is perhaps the best theory of privacy yet put into print: "Privacy is the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others."

The first chapter follows these delights with as good an opening discussion as a privacy book could have: a review of privacy from a sociological perspective. It includes discussions of information-sharing and -protecting behaviors among non-Western people who live very differently from modern Americans and Europeans. The chapter shows that Westin "gets" privacy - inductively, at least.

Subsequent chapters begin to wander from this solid privacy vision, however, to a greater and greater extent. While rightly emphasizing the importance of privacy to modern democracy, Westin imports the odd concept of "organizational privacy," for example. This is a misdescription of anonymity for individuals participating in some organizations.

A series of chapters deal with surveillance technology and "psychological surveillance" through personality testing. Personality testing may or may not be a privacy issue and, in contemporary times, these chapters may seem paranoid. The reader must actively recall that the book was written on the heels of the McCarthy era. Threats loomed of both Soviet and U.S. government infiltration of civil society, and social unrest was beginning to bubble among the nation's youth.

Remarkably (again, in retrospect) short shrift is given to "data surveillance" - monitoring of information collected in databases - compared to traditional surveillance devices like spike mics, phone taps, and parabolic microphones. The latter devices all exist today, but their threat to privacy is not substantial, society-wide - a caution to those who believe they can predict the direction of technology, society, and privacy threats.

Rather long and slightly tedious studies dominate the center of the book, but an exceedingly brief section on "The Computer and Privacy" lays out important early thinking on what came to be "Fair Information Practices" so vaunted by advocates of regulation and European bureaucrats.

In his discussion of database issues, it is very notable that Westin had in mind just one or a small number of mainframe computers: If his fair information rules were violated, "the strongest sanction of all would be to exclude any person or agency from 'the' information system . . ." (quotation added). Later, Westin imagines, "[W]ill the organs of criticism get their own computers and try to monitor selectively the operations of the big public and private systems?" Hello, Jobs and Wozniak. Hello, Internet.

Westin's final chapters do a creditable job of outlining the constitutional and common law responses to privacy threats from government and private surveillance respectively. The final chapter, "Restoring the Balance or Privacy in America," is an interesting discussion, but it carries no revelations and has not been influential to the present day.

Privacy and Freeedom has made an important contribution to debates on privacy over the last twenty-five years. It is more a product of its times than one would expect for a book so influential. Though it has some tidbits of badly needed insight, the full exposition on privacy and freedom implied by this book's bold title remains to be written.


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[updated 11/24/04]

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