Non-Fiction Reviews

Privacy: A Very Short Introduction

(2010/2015) Raymond Wacks, Oxford University Press, xvi + 155pp, ISBN 978-0-198-72594-7


Privacy is something that affects us all. In this day and age of endless communication and interconnectivity, it is also something that should concern us all. However, neither privacy nor the right to it are exactly defined or enshrined in law.

Where does privacy start (or end) and what about the genuine need of the public to know things about other people? For example, Naomi Campbell publicly stated that she did not have a drug problem yet the Daily Mirror had seen her leaving a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous and, as they would not leave the story alone, she sued them for damages. The trial court and the Court of Appeal found against her as she had mislead the newspapers, and they had the right to put the record straight, but the House of Lords awarded her compensation for the violation of her privacy. So which side won: privacy or public interest? And where is the dividing line between them?

These days we are surrounded by so many things that watch or monitor us, CCTV seems to be on every street corner, and governments and industries collect vast amounts of data on all of us. How much of this is truly necessary and how much of it is justifiable? Intercepting communications between terrorists is a good thing in that it saves lives, but should we not be able to express our opinions without fear of having them held against us? Supermarkets tell us that monitoring our shopping habits helps them provide a better service but do they really need to know so much detail about us individually? The owners of a shopping mall have a point when they say that counting the number of mobile phones entering their building helps monitor the density of shoppers throughout the day and watching their movements helps improve the layout, but do they need to profile individuals and monitor which shops each visits or how long they stay in each one?

And what about Freedom of Information? Just what information do we really need to know? And what should be kept secret? Some material is plainly confidential and should be kept so, but who decides if or when it becomes in the public interest to publish it? And what is the public interest? Is there an excuse for mere sensationalism (such as the goings on within the marriages of celebrities)? Is there justification for 'blowing the whistle' (such as revealing the unpublished side effects of medicines)?

Raymond Wacks (an Emeritus Professor of Law and Legal Theory) is very knowledgeable on Privacy having written a number of books on the subject over the last thirty five years as well as writing on other aspects of the law. In addition, he has served on and advised commissions on the reform of privacy law in a number of countries.

In this book he looks at the many aspects of privacy and balances them against general behaviour and the need for public knowledge. The introduction of smart phones and their cameras means that photography is widespread and frequent almost everywhere and social media means that such photographs are easily distributed. Is it even realistic to be able to expect to be in a public place without the possibility of being included in a photo on Facebook? The same applies to people's opinions (whether reasonable or not). Whilst we are used to hearing “the idiot in the pub” sounding off in the knowledge that it will get no further than the walls of the room, similar action on the internet means that it goes worldwide in a way that cannot be controlled and opinions based on ignorance cannot easily be countered or defended against.

The author looks at and discusses the pros and cons of various approaches and philosophies as well as actual laws in a number of countries and illustrates how they differ. He also asks what new risks lie ahead of us, what other threats there are to our privacy, and what might we need to do about them. Although physically small, this is a dense book stuffed with facts and arguments. It is to be read slowly and with consideration. And perhaps a degree of worry that Privacy is still so badly defined and addressed by legislation.

Peter Tyers

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