Edward Lee Lamoureux ’80 MA Speech Comm.
Peter Lang: 2017
You open your browser to your favorite news site, and there on top is an ad for Cougar logo socks. “Wait a minute,” you might ask yourself. “How did they know I just looked at a tweet about Coug socks?” Or you might not even think about it.
That slightly creepy sensation of losing one’s privacy, and the often accompanying “So what?” shrug, sit at the heart of Edward Lamoureux’s book. He digs into the pervasive and unprecedented collection, sale, and purchase of our personal information in the era of internet dominance. It is easy to see the benefits of the digital age, from GPS to streaming radio and news, but as Lamoureux notes, there’s a fly in the ointment: digital leaves tracks.
In the United States, we do value privacy. We can get arrested for inappropriate recordings, we vote in a private booth or by mail, and we don’t typically welcome direct surveillance. But technology, especially over the last 20 years, has grown more sophisticated and less comprehensible for the average user. Privacy and the protection of one’s own information has become very difficult to maintain.
Lamoureux, a communications professor at Bradley University who has also written about intellectual property and rhetoric, approaches the issues as a dissenter who believes privacy is dead, and as a voice to raise consciousness that American-style democracy itself might be at risk.
He writes that his driving question throughout the book is simply, “Given how much we have known, for a very long time, about new media’s threats to our privacy, why on earth have we capitulated and given up a fundamental right so quickly, thoroughly, and easily?”
To answer the question, Lamoureux documents first the harm and dangers of too few protections for individual privacy. Economic losses from hacking, mismanagement of private information that can damage due process and other constitutional guarantees, and uneven financial gain in favor of industries, all contribute to loss of trust.
After showing the risks, the book describes electronic privacy principles laid out as far back as the early 1970s, known as Fair Information Practices, which articulate how the U.S. government should handle personal data. These FIPs prohibit personal-information databases whose existence is secret, lay out ways for individuals to find what information is kept and how to correct misinformation, and prevent unintended use of personal information.
These practices are still touted in Europe and the United States, but the burgeoning data marketplace and increased surveillance since 2001, combined with convoluted terms of service and other consumer-unfriendly information gathering, have eroded the high ideals of the FIPs, asserts Lamoureux.
The more we use Facebook, Twitter, and even email, the greater our exposure to loss of privacy. It could be a hacker stealing credit card numbers or a targeted ad that legally purchased your buying preferences. But no matter the method, it creates an environment that people would probably resist, if they could.
Lamoureux concludes with a number of recommendations for government, corporations, and consumers, with an eye toward practicality. He understands that the internet, social media, and digital interactions are not going anywhere. Starting from that spot, he suggests that “the Internet, digital and computational new media, and the data marketplace are complex systems requiring holistic and concerted efforts toward improvements.”
His recommendations begin with a consumer privacy bill of rights (based on the FIPs mentioned earlier) at both the federal and state level. He also calls for federal agencies to act in consumers’ best privacy interests, such as legislation to enshrine the “right to be forgotten,” curtailing unwanted, interminable storage of private information. Among other ideas, Lamoureux says that law enforcement should refrain from mass data collection that compromises innocent people, in favor of targeted approaches. Through dozens of recommendations, Lamoureux offers corporate, judicial, legislative, technological, and consumer ideas to improve the sorry state of privacy protection.
Lamoureux’s book shines a bright spotlight into the dark corners of data tracking, surveillance, and invasions of privacy. For anyone who uses social media or the web, and that’s most of us, his work gives a better understanding of the current state of privacy practices and a roadmap toward greater accountability.