Book Review: Understanding Privacy - Heather Burns

Book cover for Understanding Privacy.Heather Burns has an absolutely deft way of turning the sometimes-dull world of digital privacy into entertaining, informative, and actionable prose.

Too many of these sorts of books end up being a list of woes and end with "someone should do something, I guess?". Understanding Privacy is different. All the way through the mantra is "You are someone! You do something! And here's how..."

Digital privacy is, I think it is fair to say, not a universally loved topic. Too often it is seen as shrill pedants lobbing fines at unsuspecting companies. The reality is somewhat more prosaic. This is a journey we all have to go on - wherever we work in the digital world.

It would be easy for this book to descend into just being a mega-long checklist. But, while there are a fair few lists, they are backed up with practical steps which can be taken by both people and companies. Some of them are wickedly witty:

Please use https://, because seeing http:// this late in the game is not the sort of ’90s flashback I enjoy.

I especially enjoyed the reframing of certain privacy mavens as "privacy ableists" - those who "criticise a person with a disability for owning an Alexa device, taking no regard for the benefit it has brought into the disabled person’s life."

I also got emotional whiplash after hearing some people described as "privacy shamers" - those who "harass anyone who is doing their best to change tech companies from the inside as being collaborators on par with the Vichy regime."

The book is full of interesting links out to further resources. Although, I should point out that links like go via the service. Which probably makes me a privacy pedant 😆.

This is an empowering read. It isn't designed to make you feel hopeless at the state of the world but, instead, it asks you to reflect on what you're doing and what you should be doing.

The final question should be the one which weighs on you heaviest: How am I going to feel about myself if I continue to work for this company and develop this product?

Read this book as soon as you can.

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