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Home > Privacy Fundamentals > Book Reviews > The Limits of Privacy


Book Review: The Limits of Privacy, Amitai Etzioni, New York: Basic Books, 280 pages

The Limits of Privacy is regarded as an important book that represents a serious and principled argument against privacy. It is serious, of course, but not terribly principled. Its author Amitai Etzioni is the leader of an intellectual movement called communitarianism, but the book amounts to little more than bare assertion – one man’s argument – that privacy is not as important as other things. The argument appears unrooted in anything more than Etzioni’s opinions.

Communitaritanism is an ideology that calls for greater attention to “the common good.” If what that means is unclear, The Limits of Privacy casts some light. The common good is what elites like Etzioni would decide for the rest of us. Etzioni is against what he calls “individualism.” In the context of privacy, that appears to mean individual power to decide what personal information we would and would not share.

The book starts with a series of case studies, guided by what Etzioni calls “criteria for corrective action.” First, there must be a “well documented and macroscopic threat” to the common good. Second, ways to address the threat without resorting to restrictions of privacy must be considered. Third, if a privacy-curbing measure is to be introduced, it must be as minimally intrusive as possible. Finally, undesirable side-effects of measures that restrict privacy should be dealt with. The criteria (difficult to understand and summarize so perhaps not done justice here) are not a terribly helpful intellectual tool.

Loosely using these criteria, Etzioni looks at HIV testing of infants, “Megan’s” laws regarding publication of information about released sex offenders, encryption, ID cards, and medical records. Each study brings Etzioni to various conclusions, but his explication of his thought process does not show the rationality or usefulness of the criteria. These chapters are slightly tedious, written as much to demonstrate how much the author knows than to carry forward and crisply defend an argument.

In a final chapter, Etzioni argues for a new conceptualization of privacy, based on the Fourth Amendment. This is appealing to him, of course, because the Fourth Amendment allows privacy to be undone with sufficient cause. One imagines that Etzioni would be the arbiter of what is sufficient and allow whatever impositions on privacy he likes. Etzioni has discovered that the Supreme Court’s privacy cases starting with Griswold are about autonomy as much as privacy. This is an important distinction, but Etzioni discusses it in a rather obscure way.

The Limits of Privacy is a unique book because it is as a significant counterpoint to the pro-privacy consensus. Its significance, however, relies on the reputation and persistence of the author rather than the substance of the book itself.

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[updated 02/23/05]



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