Etzioni’s Book Skips Much, Offers Little

The ever-expanding list of privacy literature has two new contributions. At least one is worth a place on your bookshelf.

The first is one of the most valuable privacy reference books ever published. Marc Rotenberg from the Electronic Privacy Information Center recently produced “The Privacy Law Sourcebook 1999,” the second edition in this series. The book is a compilation of domestic and international privacy laws, directives and other items. Freedom of information materials also are included.

This year’s book expands an already impressive list of documents by adding the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, materials from the safe harbor discussions between the Department of Commerce and the European Union, privacy resources organizations and useful Internet links. I recommend it to anyone who deals with privacy issues. The book is available from the Electronic Privacy Information Center bookstore at

The second book is Amitai Etzioni’s “The Limits of Privacy.” I suspect that many readers of DM News may share my dislike for it, although probably for different reasons. Etzioni is a leading proponent of communitarianism, which holds that a good society seeks a carefully crafted balance between individual rights and social responsibility. Etzioni sets out to prove that privacy is a highly privileged value in our society and that there is excessive deference to privacy.

The chief problem is that Etzioni’s premise is flawed. Privacy has always been a value to be balanced against other values, such as efficiency, cost, law enforcement and national security. Even privacy advocates, except perhaps for a few zealots, recognize the need for balance. Indeed, the signs of balancing are apparent everywhere you look. Virtually all privacy laws and policies are a mixture of protections and invasions. The balancing can be questioned from any perspective, but it is hard to make a case that privacy has won all the fights. Etzioni sustains his premise by ignoring much of the contrary evidence.

Etzioni races through several privacy issues. For example, he favors just about every government proposal to restrict the use of encryption. Apparently, he never heard an argument against encryption that he didn’t like. He also favors a national identity card.

Just about the only area where Etzioni thinks stronger protections are needed are for medical records. I was surprised because health privacy competes directly with broader societal values such as cost containment, healthcare quality and oversight.

Etzioni concludes otherwise because he has an incomplete understanding of the complexity of the healthcare data system and of the entrenched use of identifiable records in public health, research and oversight. His lack of familiarity is illustrated by his advocacy of human subject committees to oversee research. He seems unaware that we have had such committees for decades.

Marketers are not a main subject of the book. But Etzioni has nothing nice to say about what he calls privacy merchants, those who buy and sell personal information to others. He briefly describes list brokers, credit bureaus and the look-up industry. According to Etzioni, it is unfortunate that these privacy merchants will not be reined in. He cites vague political and technical reasons for the likely failure to stop private trafficking in personal data. He raises no philosophical defense of the industry or of private data mining and warehousing activities.

Indeed, his chief observation is that since we can’t stop the private collection of massive amounts of personal data, we should let the government in on the fun. He wants the cops to be able to share the benefits of the excesses of private databanks. Here, too, Etzioni seems unaware that many of the private databanks are available to the police and other government agencies.

Etzioni is unhappy with fair information practices, a privacy policy that has worldwide recognition and support. He goes back to the origins of fair information practices and quotes the original 1973 report, which says there must be a way for an individual to find out what information about him is in a record and how it is used. Etzioni rejects this, saying that “must be” does not deliver the groceries or do much of anything else. This may be the single most bizarre statement in the entire book. If he has a rational objection to giving people access to their own records, he has failed to state it.

It is perfectly fair to raise questions about privacy and to question the manner in which we balance privacy against other values. Unfortunately, Etzioni’s poorly researched polemic has little to offer. n

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