Privacy: A Manifesto

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Wolfgang Sofsky, Princeton University Press, £11.95

Wolfgang Sofsky, a celebrated German sociologist, intends his tract as a warning against a growing threat to the very notion of the private sphere, whose erosion represents an insidious "totalitarianism". Describing a day in the life of an apparently typical citizen, Sofsky outlines the variety of ways in which he is constantly scrutinised, from CCTV to the gathering of private data by companies and online activity by Internet Service Providers.

"Everything one does," he maintains, "is evaluated and judged. Nothing escapes surveillance." This is ominous, because "privacy limits power's claim to be omnipresent". In "totalitarian" regimes, such limitations have been under constant attack and the individual resources of resistance successfully crushed, including the last frontier of privacy, free thought. The manifesto is therefore self-consciously an "anti-totalitarian" one: liberty, individualism and democracy are assured by a well-protected sphere of privacy.

The first offender against privacy is the liberal state which people look upon as a protector, and which claims rights of surveillance to fulfil that mandate. The activities of private companies are only hinted at and given no lengthy exposition. But the worst offender is the individual who, demanding protection, attention and convenience, willingly gives up her privacy. Curiously, for a book devoted to defending privacy, Sofsky's manifesto has to spend a great deal of time limiting its claims, pointing out the manifest injustices that can take place under its rubric, such as the abuse of children within the home.

Perhaps most controversial is Sofsky's defense of "private property". Sofsky complains that public morality is too "traditional", too slow to align with the conditions of global capitalism. Public disapprobation of capitalists as anti-social crooks is, he laments, unfair. "Brotherliness presupposes private property. Someone who has nothing can share nothing." Moreover, private property - far from introducing alienation and division among peoples - is the basis for social intercourse, inasmuch as the market involves exchange between strangers, who recognise one another as equals. This is shockingly specious reasoning.

The entire argument against economic egalitarianism is based on the arguments of the Tory philosopher David Hume and on Robert Nozick's right-wing treatise, Anarchy, State and Utopia. Central to his argument is the view that private property - by giving the individual the means to dispose of certain goods - provides the material basis for privacy. There can be no political freedom, therefore, without the guarantee of private property. Nowhere does Sofsky acknowledge that ceding control over the most significant resources in society to a protected "private sphere" involves a substantial loss of freedom for the majority. Moreover, the preservation of that advantage by the minority arguably motivates much of the attack on privacy.

Aside from the fragility of its narrative, the book is also peppered by dubious assertions: for example, that "totalitarian" societies never fall as a result of revolt, forgetting the Velvet Revolutions or that the drug high is a particularly solitary and anti-social one - suggesting the author has never been acquainted with ecstasy.

In all, this is a strangely uneven and peremptory treatment of a topic that would merit a far more nuanced analysis.