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|One of the problems with producing one of the first books on a topic is
you give subsequent authors a fixed target to shoot at, a problem Cavoukian
and Tapscott run into with Who Knows: Safeguarding Your Privacy in a
Networked World. The authors, who are themselves indirectly updating
Anne Wells Branscomb’s 1994 Who Owns Information?, were outdone by
the later-to-market Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape
(reviewed elsewhere on this site).
Who Knows has some weaknesses, which I’ll get to in a minute, but it is also quite strong in a number of areas. The first is that it has a broad scope; the authors cover quite a bit of ground, from medical privacy to international agreements vis-a-vis protecting personal information. The second strength, which sets it firmly apart from the more academic Technology and Privacy, is that it gives the reader practical examples of how information is obtained, sold, and bartered by businesses and other organizations. Which isn’t to say that Who Knows is totally lacking in academic merit; Cavoukian and Tapscott spend time at the beginning on various definitions of privacy, focusing on “informational privacy” as the aspect of the principle most relevant to the networked world. And, in the “I didn’t have any idea they could do that” category, there’s Realtime Residential Power Line Surveillance (RRPLS). It seems that, with the proper equipment, observers can monitor a residence’s power lines and determine what appliances are being used and for how long, developing a clear profile of an individual’s routine and identifying when and how the pattern breaks. The authors quote a lengthy passage detailing one scenario where the information gained from RRPLS is used by divorce lawyers to solicit a couple who, as implied by the RRPLS data on hair drier and shower usage while one of them is away from home, might be having marital difficulties.
Unfortunately, that last sentence points up the book’s biggest weakness: excessive quotation. While each individual instance is perfectly valid, the number of multi-line quotes and “according to”’s becomes noticeable a few chapters in. Cavoukian and Tapscott do cover quite a bit of ground, so the “writer’s shortcut” of quotation saves them lots of work in setting their findings into their own words. The end result, however, is a book that is an excellent survey of the literature but has very little in the way of original scholarship.
Even so, Who Knows is a reasonably complete run-down of privacy law in the US and Europe as well as source for information on numerous privacy-related topics. The more academically inclined will probably prefer Technology and Privacy, but Who Knows is a solid survey of the privacy field.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.