Privacy, Data Mining, Surveillance Capitalism, and What To Do (Veliz)

Privacy is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data by [Carissa Veliz]

In the past few years I’ve become more aware of how heavily we are being tracked by various parties. From our smart phones to our smart watches and other smart devices to our internet browsing, different aspects of our lives are being tracked, recorded, stored, and sold. Even right here and now, I know there are trackers at work! To be sure, I’m not a conspiracy theorist at all. But I did take to heart some things about surveillance that Rod Dreher brought up in his thought-provoking book called Live Not by Lies. On top of that, I recently read Privacy Is Power by Carissa Veliz. Veliz’s book is not a Christian book. However, it is a good one for Christians to read if they’re concerned about data privacy and some ethical aspects of tracking and even personal/family safety.

One thing I like about Privacy Is Power is the fact that it doesn’t get overly political. It does talk positively about political things like democracy and freedom, but I didn’t get a strong political bent either way. I suppose in many ways data mining, tracking, and surveillance are topics that people with different political views might be concerned about. This book handles these topics from a relatively neutral pro-democracy political viewpoint.

Privacy Is Power discusses these topics in this order: 1) Data vultures (examples of how much our lives are tracked and our data is mined in different ways). 2) Background: how did this happen? (the rise of the internet, Google, terrorism, the NSA, 9/11, Covid-19 measures, etc.). 3) Privacy is power (an explanation of how giving up privacy is giving up power/freedom). 4) The dangers of data mining (examples of identity theft and other data breaches). 5) Stopping the mining (Veliz’s views on how to stop or reduce data mining). 6) Application (what we can do to keep from being tracked so much).

In the last section of this book, Veliz doesn’t say we need to stay all the way offline and get rid of all our technology. She just gives some helpful ways to avoid excessive data mining and how to maintain privacy in our digital world. As a side, this book was the straw that broke the camel’s back for my wife and I: we’re pulling the plug on Facebook, we’re changing and minimizing the ways we use our smartphones, and we’re avoiding Google and Google services as much as we can (just to name a few).

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from Privacy Is Power:

“Through protecting our privacy, we prevent others from being empowered with knowledge about us that can be used against our interests” (p. 51).

“The pandemic takes us to a second lesson to be learned from surveillance after 9/11: crises are dangerous for civil liberties. During crises, decisions are taken without carefully considering pros, cons, evidence, and alternatives. Whenever there is the slightest resistance to a proposed extreme measure, an appeal to ‘saving lives’ silences discussion. …Terrible things like terrorist attacks and epidemics happen in the world – and they will continue to happen. To think we can prevent them if we give up our freedom and privacy is to believe in fairy tales. Such wishful thinking will only lead us to add authoritarianism to the list of catastrophes that we will have to endure. Ironically, authoritarianism is one disaster we can avert. But we have to defend our civil liberties in order to do so” (p. 44-45).

“Google and Facebook are only technically in the business of data; they are mostly in the business of power” (p. 54).

“One of the biggest challenges of regulating personal data is the difficulty of policing data. At the moment, we are forced to rely on the word of tech companies that have proved themselves to be untrustworthy” (p. 161).

“Governments do not need to engage in mass surveillance to keep citizens safe” (p. 163).

Maybe I’ll come back to this book later and give a few more helpful quotes. For now, here’s the full info for it: Carrissa Veliz, Privacy is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2021).

Shane Lems