The Fight for Privacy: Protecting Dignity, Identity, and Love in the Digital Age by Danielle Keats Citron (Hardcover; 304 pages)
Civil rights are liberties considered fundamental because they enable us to flourish as whole individuals and active members of society. Danielle Citron argues that intimate privacy, the privacy around how we manage the boundaries around our bodies, is an essential civil right.
Maggy Krell wrote the book Taking Down Backpage, which was in part an autobiography of a young prosecutor. But, the core of the book involved her attempt to prosecute sex crimes, including those enabled by a webpage that served as a powerful conduit to predators.
Prof. Citron spent decades teaching law and as an activist combating online abuse and protecting intimate privacy. Citron in the book, as did Mary Anne Franks in The Cult of the Constitution, explains how Backpage.com is but an example of the need to regulate the Internet.
Citron provides a warning about the reach of the invasions of personal privacy online and off. She argues a major reason for this is that we do not properly respect the fundamental nature of privacy rights. “We” includes not only the government but each one of us in our private lives.
We discussed a book on this website about the fight for a constitutional right to privacy. Citron offers a challenge on how to truly protect privacy in the 21st Century.
Danielle Citron provided a basic summary in a recent podcast:
So intimate privacy refers to the privacy around how we manage the boundaries around our bodies, our health, our innermost thoughts, which we frankly document. Every second we search, we browse, we share, we text, we communicate our sexual orientation or gender or sexual activity.
The Fight For Privacy talks about why intimate privacy should be a civil right. Rights arise from needs. Needs that arise from wrongs that threaten essential liberties.
Should I Read It?
The Fight For Privacy addresses a very important subject that is relevant to each one of us.
The book also is an important guide to policymakers and those who are involved in various ways to try to influence public policy. This includes the proper frame (“civil rights”) to use.
Prof. Citron writes in a way approachable to the average person. She has written many academic papers. This book is for a general audience. The book ends with a helpful series of suggestions on how to safeguard your privacy in everyday life. There are no photos.
The book is filled with interesting details, including case studies of violation of privacy, and the fact that the famous “right to privacy” law review article was influenced by the fact the brother of one of the authors was a gay man (this was in 1890).
It does have somewhat of a caliber of academic work (no photographs, charts, etc. doesn’t help) and that might turn some off to a degree. Some might start to skim some sections. On the other hand, the main book is only around two hundred pages. You very well might find yourself reading the whole thing. There is definitely enough for it to be worthwhile.
Introduction: Intimacy in the Twenty-First Century
Intimate privacy involves the social norms (attitudes, expectations, and behaviors) that set and protect the boundaries around our intimate lives. “Intimate” does not necessarily mean something we keep secret. But, intimate privacy means we have control.
Alex is a nurse whose private details were detailed in many ways, including blood sugar and dating details on apps on her phone. But, videos of her getting dressed at porn sites were not something she knew about. Alex’s intimate privacy was violated by a vindictive ex-partner.
Intimate privacy is essential for our happiness. Intimate privacy needs to be protected as a civil right. Such a right is protected legally and honored as a social good. This book will discuss it.
1. Spying Inc.
There are many means that modern technology uses to track your intimate details.
These details include bodily functions, health conditions, computer searches, sexual activities, correspondence, body fat/appearance, menstrual tracking, and a whole lot more. You often do not realize it. Your “data self” is being tracked all the time and it’s hard to stop it.
A basic device in the 21st Century is the “smartphone,” which turns out to be a sort of one-stop shop for our thoughts, desires, searches, photos, communications, and movements. A major use of all this detail is advertising. Data-based advertising is a very profitable business.
Snapshot: I like the show The Way Home. My phone recently told me when a new episode was on. My phone asks me for details when I use map software. My Twitter targets ads based on searches. Amazon suggests books on past searches. I leave “cookies” all over like Hansel and Gretel leaving bread crumbs. Are proverbial scary monsters out there waiting to use them?
2. Privacy Invaders
There were always threats to privacy. King David in the Bible spied open Bathsheba, which didn’t go too well (for her husband, surely – look it up). Privacy invaders in the 21st Century have much fewer limits like time, money, and geography. Privacy invaders are not hard to get spy gadgets.
A major way to invade privacy since the invention of modern photography and film is “digital voyeurs.” Hotels and doctor’s offices repeatedly have hidden cameras. Attempts to film “upskirt.” And, it is not just for Peeping Toms. The material is used for revenge and extortion.
There is also the use of “deep fakes,” which makes very realistic-looking fake porn of celebrities and regular sorts like you and me. Such tactics are much more likely to target women (98% of video voyeurism by one estimate was by men, and 84% of the victims were women). This causes much psychological harm and helps to entrench inequality.
3. Government Spies
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution arose in large part because of knowledge that government often invades our privacy. The government can easily abuse such knowledge.
Martin Luther King Jr. was targeted by the FBI, including evidence of extramarital affairs picked up by microphone bugs in his hotel room. Intimate details were often used by authoritarian governments. East Germany in particular had a tradition of spying against the public. If someone was innocent, something could be made up to make them seem guilty.
A modern example of the use of intimate details is the release to the press of texts between two top FBI employees, Lisa Page, and Peter Strzok. They were involved in investigating events arising from the 2016 presidential campaign. The Trump DOJ gave the press special access.
Intimate privacy is also something lacking for those reliant on social services. One college student seeking obstetrics care was asked a series of very private questions. Was the pregnancy planned? intend to give up the baby for adoption? how many people did she have sex with? ever exchange sex for money or gifts? experiment with drugs? have a psychiatric illness? Assaulted? Homeless? Expelled from school? Was all of this necessary? How would it be used?
4. This is us
West Coast tech culture and cyberspace in general developed a libertarian philosophy that shunned government regulation. “Information is free.” And, “trust us” to not abuse our power.
The truth was more complicated, including sexual and racial bias in an industry where white men often had most of the power. The automatic algorithms, computer-developed programs, repeatedly furthered bias, including the idea black men were predators.
A lucrative industry developed that made money off nonconsensual intimate images, the number of sites growing to nearly 10,000 in the 2020s. The websites encourage viewers to think such images are acceptable, including the use of derogatory language to invite ridicule and scorn.
Socially we blame the victims, with the authorities often looking the other way (if not involved).
5: Law’s inadequacy
Law is our teacher and guide. We are a “nation of laws, not men.” Adequate laws require both an understanding of the reach of the invasions of privacy and respect for privacy’s importance.
In the 1990s, a court held the internet provider Prodigy (this was the days of dial-up) liable for defamatory posts because it used software to filter out profanity. Prodigy was a “publisher” that had some responsibility. This appeared unjust: it was trying to help moderate content.
“Section 230” was passed by Congress to address this situation. The problem was that “Good Samaritans” like Prodigy were not the only providers out there. “Bad Samaritans” like those that purposely invite nonconsensual porn are out there too. They “free ride” on the law.
There are ways to add online abuses, such as copyrights laws (applicable to many images), but often the websites have an interest in avoiding them. Sometimes, the laws are too weak, including misdemeanors for unauthorized disclosure, not deemed worth the police’s time. Lawsuits also are a mixed bag, depending on the complexities of privacy law.
6: The Right to Intimate Privacy
Intimate privacy should be protected as a civil right.
Civil rights are rights considered fundamental because they enable us to flourish as whole individuals and active members of society. Civil rights provide legal significance and moral resonance. They are protected by state and federal law, including constitutional law.
The “right to privacy” was recognized in various ways by American law since the U.S. was its own country. But, a key moment was the publishing of a famous law review article by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis (later a Supreme Court justice). Warren’s brother was a closet homosexual.
Intimate privacy is essential for our liberty. It is a means to have space to form our personalities and relationships with others. Privacy allows a space to be “honest and raw.”
7: A Comprehensive Approach to Intimate Privacy Violations
The full protection of a civil right of intimate privacy requires a comprehensive approach.
The law should make it easy to protect privacy and allow those harmed to get the relief they want and need. One important protection is the right to sue under a pseudonym to prevent the fight for privacy to not lead to even more violations of privacy.
There are a variety of other legal strategies, some discussed in this chapter. The solutions should not threaten privacy or equality. They do not violate the First Amendment, which allows a variety of reasonable regulations. For a proper balance, see also, The Cult of the Constitution.
It can be done by promoting equity, education, and avoiding excess punishments.
8: The Duties of Data Guardians
Laws protecting individuals are not enough to protect the civil right to intimate privacy. Intimate privacy also includes the duties of private companies and government entities.
Civil rights laws have over the years set forth obligations for public spaces like schools, businesses, and voting booths. Public spaces are a place where racial, sexual, and other types of equality are secured as we work, play, travel, and perform our duties of citizenship.
Such places should have a legal duty to protect intimate privacy. There are ways to update Section 230 to target bad actors without “breaking the Internet” by abridging too much speech. Our data should be more carefully collected with more privacy safeguards.
9: The New Compact for Social Norms
Equality over the years is often promoted by social norms and voluntary private action. GLBTQ individuals are honored and respected as much by these things as by the law itself.
There are reasons for cautious optimism that intimate privacy is also being more respected by some people these days. Methods are being formulated to moderate online content including “hashing” technology [“digital fingerprints”] that help block offensive content.
Education is also important. Government bodies, including local and federal legislatures, must know what is at stake. Parents should help educate their children. Schools and workplaces must know the stakes and various methods to protect privacy. Protests and activism are important.
International cooperation is also very important. We live in a globally interconnected world.
10: Hope and Change
The fight for privacy is not just about potential. Many improvements have been made.
The successes of a cyber exploitation task force, which included then California Attorney General Kamala Harris, are discussed, including changes at Google.
Activism started when a British advertising copywriter was targeted by a man who photographed up her skirt is covered. Mass protests and activism has taken place in countries around the world. There is a lot more to do. But, there are promising signs.
Epilogue: The Fight Continues
We should not live in a world that is an open book without intimate privacy. And, this includes recognizing online life as part of the modern world.
There is a way and it will not “break the internet” or something if we did it. It includes laws and pressure on private companies. It requires parents to teach their children and the public to push back against violations. Our country can be a model for others. If we make the effort.
This final section provides a range of tips to help protect privacy. A bit scary in their breadth:
- Tips For Everyday Interactions
- Tips For App Users
- Tips For Home Devices and Tools
- Guidance For Parents and Guardians
Points to Ponder
I have been interested in privacy matters since high school. One thing that concerns me is the lack of a good understanding of why a “right to privacy” is so essential.
Privacy rights are widely respected. But, there is a lot of confusion, especially regarding the constitutional right to privacy. This book usefully understands a “fight” for privacy requires a firm understanding of why the fight is worth the candle.
I am reminded of the film The First Monday In October, which is a fictionalized take on the first woman justice. A liberal justice writes about the importance of privacy:
When God created the world, he did it alone, in private. All by himself. No monitors, no hidden microphones. He made it the way he wanted it. But what if someone had invaded God’s privacy? Would he have put the world together the same way? I doubt it. He would’ve made it a popular world. And the Garden of Eden would have turned out like Las Vegas or 42nd Street.
Citron argues that intimate privacy is likewise important to allow us the freedom to fruitfully create our identity and have relations with others, online and off.
Just how true is this? What would happen if we were a true “open book”? How much privacy do we have in the 21st Century? Will protecting privacy as a “civil right” do much good?
Danielle Keats Citron is a professor of law at the University of Virginia where she writes and teaches about privacy, free expression, and civil rights.
Citron has worked with lawmakers, law enforcement, and tech companies for the past decade to combat online abuse and protect intimate privacy. She also wrote Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.
Is The Fight For Privacy A Reliable Source
Prof. Danielle Citron has written two books. Both books are about stuff she has researched, taught, and used in her activism for decades. She writes what she knows.
The book is carefully researched. The page count is about one-quarter a result of detailed endnotes. This is a reliable example of legal advocacy.
Her discussion includes material for which Citron herself was involved in various ways as an activist and legal advisor. She flags when this is so. You can keep that in mind to the degree that bias might seep in. Nonetheless, as a whole, I did not judge that to be a problem.