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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2009

The Privacy Advocates

The Privacy Advocates: Resisting the Spread of Surveillance — Colin Bennett — Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008; 259 pp; ISBN: 978-0-26202-638-3, cloth $28 US.
Watching Big Brother Watching


When did you connect privacy and freedom? When I look back, it was those moments when my Grade 5 teacher would squeeze in the space beside me at my little desk and watch me do my schoolwork. I would fidget, become self-conscious, often freeze up, do anything but my school assignment under her intrusive, though friendly, gaze.

Inevitably, surveillance begets changes in behaviour. That is, if you’re even conscious of the surveillance — one of the key challenges for privacy self-advocacy in a modern age of faceless surveillance technology.

Although I doubt those moments back in fifth grade motivated me to work professionally in the area of privacy protection as I have for the past 15 years, they did help to make me aware of the connection, no doubt unconsciously at the time.

Since freedom matters, who makes it their business to fight for privacy? Colin Bennett’s The Privacy Advocates sets out to answer that precise question: “When surveillance practices emerge, who mobilizes against them, how and with what effect?”

Those who know Bennett — a political science professor at the University of Victoria — know that he is a familiar face on the privacy scene. He’s authored several books on privacy, is a regular commentator in the media and to government on privacy issues and speaks frequently at privacy conferences — one of the principal ways privacy advocates network. The network’s not particularly large. And, in spite of his meditation on the ethical quandaries of the scholar-advocate, Bennett confesses that he regards himself as a privacy advocate.

The Privacy Advocates blends various research about social movements, key historical privacy controversies and the elusive concept of privacy itself while painting a unique picture of the civil society groups and individuals that protect privacy, the archetypical roles they play, the strategies and tactics they employ to protect it, and the relative degree to which they have coalesced into a more or less effective network. Bennett concludes with the prospects of success for building an effective advocacy network into the future.

Early on, Bennett lets us know who his book is about and who it is not about. Out of his focus are the many data protection commissioners who are key defenders of privacy in Canada, such as federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart or influential provincial commissioners like Ann Cavoukian and David Loukide­lis. Bennett’s scope is international, but his focus is on the people and groups in civil society, not government or quasi-government agencies. Indeed there are no such agencies in the United States. There the game is played by personalities and NGOs.

Bennett does however recognize the influence of privacy commissioners when he examines the future of the privacy advocacy movement: “…there is the strong possibility that ‘political space’ for privacy advocacy has been crowded out by the official (government sponsored) agencies — the privacy and data protection commissioners performing their various investigative, auditing, complaints resolution, analytical and enforcement responsibilities in various countries…Thus, in countries like Canada, the network of federal and provincial privacy commissioners is seen by the media and general public as the obvious spokespersons for the privacy issue.”

While I wouldn’t put it so strongly — indeed a good journalist in our country will make sure that she gets both a commissioner’s viewpoint and an advocate’s — the hill gets steeper for the privacy advocate’s cause if the relevant commissioner’s view is different. On this point, Bennett misses a great opportunity to more carefully examine the relationship between privacy commissioners — often labeled privacy ‘czars’ — and advocates.

Despite working in the area for many years, I now have a better understanding of the particular people at the centre of the cause and their ways. Particularly insightful is Bennett’s final chapter on why the privacy advocacy movement doesn’t match the breadth or influence of the environmental or human rights movements. Regrettably, the line “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” still resonates among the public. But there are many other reasons and Bennett reveals them all. For current or prospective privacy advocates, Bennett provides much to ponder.

For those in the academy, this book is timely. One of my first tasks as the new executive director of the University of British Columbia Faculty Association in 2008 was to fend off a draconian new “privacy” policy at UBC. The policy was deeply problematic. It sought to reverse the standard that academics have “custody and control” over their own teaching and research materials and replace it with the university’s ubiquitous authority to intrude on any piece of paper or electronic document because of the mere fact that a faculty member uses UBC’s information or communication systems, broadly defined. Breathtaking in scope, the proposal posed a fundamental threat to academic freedom. Fortunately, the faculty association per­suaded the board of governors not to approve the policy.

But beware: this is a story that has or will be played out at a university near you. And if you need a privacy advocate on your side in the looming battles, Bennett’s The Privacy Advocates is your guide.

Murray Mollard is executive director of the UBC Facult Association. He was executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association from 2000–2008 and its policy director from 1994­­­– 2000. He dedicates this review to all grade school teachers for their lessons on privacy.