Law Professor’s Book Warns of “Loss of Self” to Surveillance—and What Can Be Done

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Richards WarnerIn his new book about the “pervasive investigative gaze” of increasingly ubiquitous surveillance in the modern world, Chicago-Kent College of Law Professor Richard Warner explores how it happened, what its effect is on the average person, and what can be done about it.

“The public’s increasingly concerned, but it’s difficult if you’re not specialized [to study the field of surveillance] to get a picture of what’s going on,” Warner says. “To know how to regulate surveillance we first need an adequate understanding of it.”

That last part is by no means an easy thing, Warner acknowledges in The Privacy Fix: How to Preserve Privacy in the Onslaught of Surveillance, which will be published by Cambridge University Press in October. Warner and his co-author—Robert H. Sloan, head of the University of Illinois Chicago Department of Computer Science—believe it will take a concerted effort from a broad array of academic disciplines.

The book backs up that sentiment, stating that the discussion must include, at minimum, “computer scientists, economists, lawyers, philosophers, sociologists, and makers of public policy.”

But perhaps more importantly, the book seeks to explain why such a discussion must take place; in effect, how important some measure of privacy is to interpersonal relations, one’s development, and “self-realization.”

“It does pose a serious threat to the self,” the authors note.

The book suggests that heavy-handed surveillance denies a person’s ability to explore different avenues of personal development, via the ever-present specter of being watched by unknown parties with unknown motivations. The spotlight of surveillance—the knowledge that it’s there, and the complete loss of control regarding how it will be used—magnifies one’s dread of being shamed.

“In general, surveillance limits opportunities for self-realization by altering the conditions under which people seek it,” Warner and Sloan write. “Individuals realize that businesses, governments, and organizations have a massive capacity to know about them, but they are mostly in the dark about whether and how they use that capacity. We emphasize that the mere existence of the capacity reduces self-realization.”

The book argues that surveillance destroys many of the social norms that people take for granted. The ability to share opinions in confidence is crucial to many social dynamics that would be destroyed by a dominant surveillance state, Warner believes.

“Interactions in social roles create a complex web of ‘privacy in public’ as people trust each other to share certain types of information, to refrain from sharing other types, and to use information only in certain ways,” the authors state in the book.

All of those expectations, all of that trust would be destroyed by the ingrained belief that everything one says will be known and used in ways beyond one’s control, the authors write.

As for the current status of the surveillance state, Warner believes “the privacy protections of the mid-twentieth century have broken down, and the question is how do we react to that? We [the book’s authors] say, have privacy-protective norms.”

As one example, Warner suggests regulating artificial intelligence algorithms and establishing a standard of fairness for data collection.

“We turn to regulation because we assume market solutions are unlikely,” the authors state, adding, “Consumers lack sufficient power and information.”

Warner notes that a portion of the book is used to explore how surveillance expanded to its present-day capacity.

“We try to explain what happened—why has there been such a breakdown in privacy?….[Currently,] if the government wants to try to find out about you, they’ll find out everything,” Warner says. Of private companies that hold data, he adds, “They certainly make a public show of resisting subpoenas, but the underlying facts are not quite as rosy.”

The book acknowledges that some of these topics have been touched on before.

“Recent work emphasizes the same point we do, namely, an essential aspect of privacy consists in people’s trusting each other to respect shared expectations about the selective flow of information,” Warner and Sloan write. “If that is all we had to say, there would be no reason to write this book. We break new ground with an explanation of how and why trust is essential to privacy in public and an explanation of how and why surveillance undermines trust.”

Warner and Sloan have authored two other books on the topic in recent years. Unauthorized Access: The Crisis in Online Privacy and Security was published in 2013 by Chapman & Hall/CRC Press and Why Don't We Defend Better? Data Breaches, Risk Management, and Public Policy was published in 2019 by Taylor & Francis/CRC Press.

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