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The Privacy Advisor | Book review: 'Privacy and How to Get It Back' Related reading: Perspective: How proper data can reduce algorithmic discrimination


"Privacy and How to Get It Back," a short read by B.J. Mendelson, is meant to inform the reader regarding “what’s being done with your data by billion-dollar tech companies” and how the answer to that question exposes a lack of “tools, processes and legislation.” Aimed more at the privacy novice then the privacy expert, the strength of the book is that it is conversational and entertainingly written.

It's meant to be a practical guide that examines what users need to know about big data and the data collection practices of companies. Practical advice is provided and the important points from each chapter are indicated as bullets at the end of the chapter, which allows for easy digestion. The author swings between providing very detailed advice on practical steps individuals can take to preserve their privacy and generalized recommendation as to how privacy issues should be addressed in general.

“Privacy and How to Get it Back” provides high-level explanations for some of the large data breaches of recent times with a focus on what conclusions users should be drawing from them. Although authored before the story on Cambridge Analytics broke, it is a timely read as it walks through how data collection works in a way that is understandable to the general reader.

Slightly hyperbolic at times, the author states that he is not trying to say that people shouldn’t use purveyors of big data, while at the same time taking aim at their data protection policies and efforts. One point: Mendelson suggests that fines and even jail time should be considered for some privacy breaches. He proffers several ideas on what should be done or what users should demand in the future. He uses this point to segue into what appears to be a central concept in his approach to user data — that individuals, not companies, should be the ones to profit from their data. The author does not offer any suggestion on how to make such a scheme work.

Mendelson also makes the case that we need additional privacy legislation to protect consumers but asserts the federal government is unlikely to pass legislation on this subject. He therefore suggests that the states are in the best position to enact privacy regulations.

Perhaps the book’s most intriguing idea is that the missing piece in privacy is consumer (or user) education to allow them to understand the impacts of current privacy policies and the potential future impacts. Because these impacts are significant, in the final chapter the author advocates for making the collection and use of data more explicit and clear. In particular, Mendelson makes the case that terms of service should be clearer and more understandable. This suggestion by Mendelson is his most practical and timely, and is the best takeaway from this book.

Overall, this work was aimed at providing a basic understanding of the privacy ramifications of big data. In this regard, it is fairly successful. It is an easy read for the privacy novice interested in an overview of big data and what that means. However, it should be read with a grain of salt. Mendelson is clearly not a fan of big data, and, as the title of the book suggests, believes that many companies’ data collection practices violate privacy. 

I mentioned the points from the book most interesting to me but as I walk away from the book I’m left wondering: Were the points that I took away what the author meant me to? 


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