Firmin DeBrabander


On his book Life After Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society

Cover Interview of February 17, 2021

In a nutshell

Life After Privacy examines the grave threat to privacy in the digital age, and its political implications. Unlike other writings on the topic, Life After Privacy does not lament or hyperventilate over the loss of privacy, nor does it aim to galvanize popular appreciation for this endangered institution. Rather, this book points out that privacy is but a recent institution, which has not been enjoyed for long, and that people have long lived—and flourished—without it.

We have a curious relationship to privacy: we will say we value it, but our behavior suggests otherwise. We seem all too willing to sacrifice data in exchange for the wondrous conveniences of technology—even for menial benefits, too, like sharing on social media.

Privacy advocates are horrified by this state of affairs. There are several reasons we might be less concerned—and place our concern elsewhere. For one thing, privacy is a young institution, and has ever been threatened. For much of its brief history, privacy was the province of the rich. Only in the mid-twentieth century was privacy widely enjoyed, for example, in middle class suburbia; no sooner had we achieved the apex of privacy than the digital age was upon us, and it was routed again.

A closer inspection, furthermore, reveals that privacy is an incoherent notion. Louis Brandeis provided a seminal legal definition when he said privacy is the ‘right to be left alone.’ But what exactly does it mean to be ‘left alone’? When am I ‘left alone’?—and can I be sure? Who ensures that I am ‘left alone’? Isn’t that principally up to me, whether I am resistant to intrusion or interference? In short, privacy is a moving target, impossible to pin down. How can we then defend it with any certainty?

Luckily, privacy is not so essential to democracy and freedom as its defenders think. Civil libertarians claim privacy is critical for developing autonomous, independent minded citizens. It creates that crucial space for free speech and thought, upon which expansions of liberty rely. And yet: civil rights activists never enjoyed any privacy in which to work out their controversial ideas and make plans. They succeeded, rather, thanks to cooperation, coordination of powers, and effective organizing—in the public sphere. The experience was the same for gay rights activists and labor activists, who never had the luxury of privacy, but delivered the most consequential civil rights gains of the past century nonetheless.

The health of the public—not the private—realm is essential to democracy, though it is equally endangered in the digital age today. If we would hope to defend civil liberty, we must learn how to make the public sphere vibrant again, and the internet is a poor substitute. Luckily, evidence abounds that we are hungry to inhabit public spaces again, where we can physically mingle, encounter difference, build resilient connections, and reap the fruits of community life.