Firmin DeBrabander


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

Cover Interview of February 17, 2021

The wide angle

More broadly, this book concerns the nature of democracy, and disputes the notion that individual citizens are its foundation. I agree with the American philosopher John Dewey, who claimed that the power of democracy is found and formed in communities. Individual citizens are not born ready-made; they do not come to their ideas on their own, nor do they have political impact individually. Rather, citizens are formed and mobilized in communities that nourish and encourage them. Associations are key to developing active, emboldened citizens, Dewey argued. Citizens cannot be isolated but must rather build bridges within intentional communities that operate and engage in the public realm. Thus, a right to privacy is less consequential to the welfare of democracy, which relies, rather, on the nature of our bonds, how we reach out, communicate, deliberate, and organize.

Life After Privacy also aims to contend with the reality of the digital economy. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated our dependence on technology, which consumes our data as a matter of course. Our privacy will be ever more vulnerable as the digital economy continues to envelop us. The task of protecting privacy—for the individual consumer—will only get harder. Much harder. Such that protecting privacy will be (or already is) a non-starter for many of us. Digital citizens, who are accustomed to exposing themselves on social media, and sharing data with retailers in exchange for services, will not be inclined to conceal themselves; besides the fact that they could hardly do so if they tried.

Privacy advocates recommend stronger regulations, which give us more power to control our data, and share it as we wish. But we have no idea what information our spies want, and why—the science of data analysis is so far beyond comprehension for most of us. Who knows, for example, that retailers have determined that buying felt pads for your furniture is a preeminent marker of creditworthiness? And who knows that Facebook can tell from our ‘likes’ and the patter of our posts if we are falling in love or breaking up? It is increasingly clear that lone individuals, even if bolstered by privacy regulations, stand little chance against the vastly powerful data industry that aims to analyze and influence us.

This is in keeping with a recurring theme of my writing: the relative impotence of the individual citizen, reliant upon him or herself. My first book, Do Guns Make Us Free? studied the radical gun rights movement, the strongest expression yet of American individualism, which holds that armed citizens are empowered to better protect themselves and exercise liberty. By contrast, I argued, a mass of unaffiliated armed individuals endangers us all, and makes us less free to inhabit any public space. Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrated that non-violent citizens are eminently powerful when they cohere and coordinate efforts in concerted public demonstration.