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Why Privacy Matters on Human Information and Freedom

Human information, the data that reveals who we are and what we do, is at the center of many current problems. From government surveillance to corporate data mining, our privacy is constantly under threat. But why does privacy matter, and how can we protect it in the digital age?

In this book, Neil Richards, a leading expert on privacy law, offers a much-needed corrective on what privacy is, why it matters, and how we can safeguard it from the forces that are working to undermine it.

If you want to learn more about the importance of privacy for our identity, power, freedom, and trust, and how you can defend your privacy rights in a world where personal information is up for grabs, then you should read this book. In the following sections, I will provide a summary and a review of the main arguments and insights of Why Privacy Matters by Neil Richards.


Nonfiction, Technology, Politics, Science, Social Science, Law, Philosophy, Ethics, Sociology, Psychology

Why Privacy Matters A Powerful and Insightful Book on Human Information and Freedom

The book consists of six chapters, each exploring a different aspect of privacy and human information.

  • The first chapter defines privacy as the degree to which human information is neither known nor used, and explains why privacy is not dead, but rather contested.
  • The second chapter examines the history and evolution of privacy, and how it has been shaped by different technologies and social contexts.
  • The third chapter analyzes the relationship between privacy and power, and how privacy can protect us from various forms of domination and manipulation.
  • The fourth chapter discusses the connection between privacy and freedom, and how privacy can enable us to express ourselves, form our identities, and participate in democracy.
  • The fifth chapter explores the link between privacy and trust, and how privacy can foster social cooperation, mutual respect, and human dignity.
  • The sixth chapter proposes a set of principles and strategies for designing and implementing privacy rules that can balance the benefits and risks of human information, and promote the essential human values that privacy supports.


Why Privacy Matters is a well-written, well-researched, and well-argued book that makes a compelling case for the importance of privacy in our lives and society. Richards draws on a wide range of sources and examples, from philosophy and law to history and science, to illustrate his points and support his claims.

He also anticipates and addresses some of the common objections and challenges to privacy, such as the trade-off between privacy and security, the consent and transparency of data collection and use, and the social and economic value of human information.

He does not shy away from the complexity and ambiguity of privacy, but rather acknowledges and embraces it, and offers a nuanced and balanced perspective that avoids oversimplification and dogmatism.

He also provides practical and actionable suggestions for how we can protect and enhance our privacy, both as individuals and as a society, and how we can shape the future of human information in a way that is consistent with our hard-won commitments to political freedom, individuality, and human flourishing. Why Privacy Matters is a timely and relevant book that should be read by anyone who cares about the role and impact of privacy in the modern world.


Asserting that “privacy is dead” is popular, but it overstates the reality. Today’s computerized world generates digital data about each person, and corporations and governments widely collect, analyze and use it. Even so, people care about their privacy and often manage to keep many facets of their individual lives private. Author Neil Richards, a privacy law professor, explores how society could control and regulate the way various parties obtain, retain and disseminate personal information, and whether there is a correct path – given, as the professor explains, that privacy is ultimately about power.


  • Privacy is measured by the extent to which human information remains unknown and unused.
  • Privacy focuses on protecting human information, including regulating how governments and businesses use it.
  • Rules regulating the use of human information are important and unavoidable.
  • People and institutions gain power over others by invading their privacy.
  • Information privacy enables people to develop and articulate their own identities.
  • Political freedom and democracy require “intellectual privacy.”
  • Consumers need privacy for their protection.
  • Society should regard privacy as a “fundamental human right.”


Privacy is measured by the extent to which human information remains unknown and unused.

The world is inundated with information about people, from their emails, internet searches, social media activities and just about everything else they do. When government agencies, corporations and public health institutions obtain this information – often in the routine course of doing business – they collect, analyze and organize it to shape public policy and market products and services.

Even as people amass personal information on their smartphones and other devices, they manage to keep many aspects of their lives private – and they regard privacy as important.

“Privacy Is Dead talk masks the real interests at stake: control of our digital society. We live in a society in which information is power and ‘privacy’ is the word we use to talk about the struggles over personal information, personal power and personal control.”

Although many legal documents cite the right to privacy – including the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights and Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – human information privacy is difficult to define. One basic definition delineates privacy as “the degree to which human information is neither known nor used.” Privacy pertains to information about people, not about commodities or, for that matter, about the universe. Your personal, human information is private to the extent that other people aren’t aware of it and can’t exploit it.

Privacy focuses on protecting human information, including regulating how governments and businesses use it.

Marketers for the US chain of Target department stores figured out how to analyze shopping data to determine if female customers were pregnant. Target began with its own large data set tracking customers’ purchases and then bought additional fine-grained data sets. A data specialist established correlations between customer purchases and pregnancy. For example, in their first trimester, pregnant women buy unscented lotion. Target’s marketers sent coupons for pregnancy related merchandise to potentially pregnant women to draw them into its stores.

When The New York Times revealed this scheme, many women found Target’s practices invasive. In response, Target concealed its marketing tactics by mixing coupons for merchandise with special appeal to pregnant women with coupons for goods unrelated to pregnancy. The assortment of coupons each woman received now appeared random, and consumers found them less intrusive.

“The important lesson of this oft told story is not actually about the power of human information analytics to find surprising correlations like the one between lotion and pregnancy. Instead, the real lesson is about the power those insights have to control human behavior.”

The debate about privacy centers on how much power people who know how to use private information can wield. The Target story is a fairly straightforward example of how human information, combined with algorithms and findings from behavioral science, can give knowledgeable people or institutions power over others. In today’s technologically sophisticated information age, having and using human information confers an advantage – and extra power – on certain companies, governments and individuals.

This leads to a long-standing question: Can society institute appropriate rules to regulate the gathering, storing and use of human information? The internet benefits from the concept that such information confers power – and that bad actors can abuse that power – but it didn’t create the idea.

American laws protect personal information, but unfortunately many of these laws are either flawed or outright bad, and they don’t function sufficiently when extended into the contemporary information environment. The way policymakers formulate privacy laws today will have an enormous impact on contemporary society and its future.

Rules regulating the use of human information are important and unavoidable.

American law governing the use of personal information dates back to the US Constitution, but the information age makes everything more complex. While existing laws matter, countless decisions made in computer technology and software design shape how people live in the information society. For example, software design often incorporates both constraints on using private information and opportunities to exploit it.

“Design is everywhere, is political, and affects our choices through the exercise of power…An attention to design should be an important part of our public policy.”

Most human information is neither entirely private nor entirely public. Rules governing this information must cover these “intermediate states” and must reflect greater human values.Keeping human information private isn’t absolutely good or bad.

People and institutions gain power over others by invading their privacy.

The numerous interpretations and definitions of the concept of information privacy have picked up some destructive myths. For example, the need for privacy doesn’t rest on concealing peoples’ or institutions’ ugly, embarrassing secrets. Human beings have matters they want to keep private even if they aren’t scandalous.

“The way we talk about privacy is often infected by dangerous misconceptions about what privacy is and about how our digital society actually works.”

People may want to keep their intellectual pursuits private for social or political reasons.Most people want to hide certain aspects of themselves and many find it disturbing if some agency is surveilling their personal information. People – even young people – value privacy.

Some people want their privacy protected because they find privacy invasions “creepy” and intrusive.For instance, people often use the term “creepy” to describe Target’s use of data to project whether female customers are pregnant. But “creepiness” as a standard changes over time and in different contexts.

More than personal preference, the crucial issue regarding privacy invasion is that it gives some people and institutions power over others.People who oppose information privacy laws and standards often do so out of self-interest, primarily economic. They benefit when others lower their expectations for information privacy.

Information privacy enables people to develop and articulate their own identities.

The algorithms that fuel social media and other online venues define people and how others perceive them, often for political and commercial advertising. Yet people are much more than the information they display online, more than cogs in the algorithms of the aggregated databases. People want and need to determine and articulate their own identities.

“Privacy matters because it enables us to determine and express our identities, by ourselves and with others, but ultimately – and essentially – on our own terms.”

Privacy gives people the “breathing room” to develop their preferred, authentic selves without interference from corporations, governments or other institutions and communities. People need privacy protections to pursue self-development, as well as their intellectual and political identity. Research suggests that developing your identity requires working within the implicit social boundaries outlined by information privacy.

People don’t really develop their identities through reasoning or studying philosophical texts. Throughout their lives, people explore who they are through play and experimentation in a social and cultural context. Solid privacy rules help people develop their individuality.

Political freedom and democracy require “intellectual privacy.”

In the summer of 2013, Edward Snowden famously exposed the scale and scope of the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance of people it deemed were, “radicalizing others through incendiary speeches.” The NSA intended to discredit such activists, although these people were not terrorists; in fact, some were respected scholars or religious leaders. The program that Snowden exposed sought to punish people for political speech, which normally falls under First Amendment protections.

“Privacy shields the development not just of our personal identities but of our political identities as well.”

Proper privacy laws give citizens the protection and safety to oppose the government and its policies, and the freedom to criticize and protest the government’s use or alleged abuse of power. A functioning democracy requires a free press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. In contrast, totalitarian societies wield both state secrecy and constant citizen surveillance. Such regimes intrinsically object to privacy protections.

In well functioning democracies, privacy protections enable people to be “free and self-governing citizens.” But even in democracies, the commercial sphere gathers information to promote brands for profit and some jurisdictions suppress voting in ways that echo the surveillance abuses of nondemocratic societies.

Consumers need privacy for their protection.

The information revolution is every bit as significant and transformative today as the Industrial Revolution was in its time. Policymakers developed consumer protection laws in the 20th century to protect people from some forms of manipulation and abuse that evolved out of the Industrial Revolution and its products and services.

“Today the digital consumer confronts not just the goods and services of the industrial age but those of the information age as well.”

However, the risks inherent in the information age are different and more extreme. For example, in the past, many people understood how their cars worked and could even repair them. Today, few people can understand their cars, much less their laptops and smartphones, and they have no idea how to repair them. Human information fuels the information economy, right down to the material utilized to train AI.

Consumer protection law in the 21st century should overlap with privacy law. Most European countries already have a “data protection agency” as well as a consumer protection agency. The United States lags far behind in protecting consumers. America’s Federal Trade Commission, which seeks to prevent “unfair and deceptive trade practices,” is a product of the Industrial Age. The country still needs to develop adequate laws that promote fair, transparent information relationships between businesses and consumers – and protect 21st century consumers.

Society should regard privacy as a “fundamental human right.”

Privacy is social power – so how should the law reflect that reality? Laws and conventions should regulate how any actors – individuals, governments or companies – collect, store and use human information for whatever purposes. Privacy rules and laws should reflect relevant human values and control the power human information can confer. These values include the way people develop their identities, exercise political freedom within democracies, and act as consumers in the open market without manipulation and abuse.

“If we do that, then we might have an information revolution that is closer to the promises of the tech industry and lives up to those promises of human connection, empowerment and flourishing with which the internet broke onto the public stage in the 1990s.”

People should be able to regard information privacy as a basic, fundamental human right that protects them against incursions by other people, government and the private sector. The European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms already protects information privacy. But in 1974, when it could have done so, the United States Congress failed to extend the right to privacy to include information, and it has not remedied that error. For the sake of preserving American democracy, US law must codify the right to information privacy.

About the Author

Neil Richards, the Koch Distinguished Professor at Washington University School of Law, co-directs the Cordell Institute for Policy in Medicine & Law.

Nina Norman is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. She has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Nina has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. She is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Nina lives in London, England with her husband and two children. You can contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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