Privacy is Power by Carissa Véliz, Bantam Press It’s impossible to read the introduction to Carissa Véliz’s Privacy is Power without hearing in the mind’s ear the saturnine tones of voice-overs from The Twilight Zone . “They are watching us. They know I’m writing these words. They know you are reading them. Governments and hundreds of corporations are spying on you and me, and everyone we know. […] They want to know who we are, what we think, where we hurt. They want to predict and influence our behaviour.” But this is not fiction, and Véliz is no tabloid scaremonger looking to profit from our paranoia, but rather an Oxford University philosophy professor specialising in data ethics. The rest of her vitally important book is written in a brisk, straightforward style that clearly communicates not only the nature of the threat to our privacy from the harvesting and trading of information about us, but the moral responsibility each of us has towards others in the management of our data. A data-driven dystopia is almost upon us. The right television comparison is Black Mirror . When we hear of yet another breach of security at a social media company, or when we decide reluctantly to enter an email address into a website to gain access, we tend to take refuge in the thought that we are nobody of interest. But as Véliz makes clear: “Society is made up of nobodies, and that’s who data-hungry institutions are interested in.” For any set of personal data – browsing histories, health statistics or movements around town – there is equally a set of people we wouldn’t willingly let see it. Yet dozens of private corporations routinely hoover up our every step both on the web and off it. Our searches reveal what it is we don’t know, and what we might want. Phone apps unrelated to navigation or exercise record our movements and sell them to those who may believe they can then divine much about us – not only what we want to buy, but our marital status or political opinions. We are often falsely told that the data recorded about us is anonymised but de-anonymising it is often routine. A mere four time-stamped connections by mobile phones to cell towers are enough to identify 95 per cent of phone owners. Our identities can even be discerned from something as innocuous as an anonymised database of Netflix movie rankings. Data brokers “collect all kinds of extremely sensitive information, package it, and sell it to banks, insurers, retailers, telecoms, media companies, governments, and occasionally, criminals”, Véliz writes. And we often willingly supply the information. Our smartphones are the pocket equivalent of a house arrest ankle monitor, but self-applied. Véliz insists the right to privacy is a human right, and that to willingly give up our own privacy is to compromise the rights of others. Vast databases of anonymised information yield statistics and by adding to them we help to create a data set that can be used to make probabilistic inferences about the health, smoking habits, sexual preferences, etc of others. To read her accounts of data mining using such apparently innocuous means as internet-connected fridges or wireless nanny-cams, or the monitoring of our cursor movements on Facebook, and to read how much is being done to sway our opinions as a result, is to experience at once a sense of shock and a feeling of resignation. We knew that abuses of this kind by what Véliz calls “data vultures” were always likely to be happening. There’s little evidence that the main use of this data, to show us more persuasive advertising, is actually cost-effective. But while a small increase in sales may not fund the costs of the advertising campaign, an equally small swing in public opinion can make a political one victorious. Véliz provides recommendations on how to regain control, through the avoidance of unnecessary “smart” devices, careful selection of web browser and mobile phone operating system, attention to settings, and even the supply of false information. But mostly she implores us to campaign for better regulation of data collection and sharing. This should require our express permission, and the data should be held with considerably more security and deleted when outdated. Véliz likens personal data to asbestos. It may be cheaply mined, but then hangs around being potentially toxic. The alternative to the end of privacy is the end of what she calls “surveillance capitalism”, and we must campaign for its regulation. The end of surveillance communism perhaps even more so.