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Author's quest for privacy proves fruitless

There is a sense of despair when it comes to privacy in the digital age.

Many of us assume that so much of our electronic information is now compromised, whether by corporations or government agencies, that there is little that can be done about it. Sometimes we try to rationalize this by telling ourselves that privacy may no longer matter so much. After all, an upstanding citizen should have nothing to fear from surveillance.

In "Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance," author Julia Angwin seeks to challenge that defeatism.

In her book, published by Times Books, she argues that surveillance dragnets do matter and can damage lives. For example, she speaks to people who have had their driving licenses revoked after facial recognition software flagged them as looking too similar to another driver.

Other cases have involved sufferers of mental illness being horrified to discover that what they thought were private chat forums were being monitored and recorded by drug companies. And although the individual cases are still relatively isolated, Angwin points to an enormous potential for further harm.

She reminds us that the Stasi surveillance networks, which had such a chilling effect on East Germans, were nothing compared with the social mapping now available through services such as Facebook. Angwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly at the Wall Street Journal and now a senior reporter at the investigative website ProPublica.

In her book, she spends a year seeing if she can escape the dragnets. The project is exhausting and mostly futile.

She disconnects from 91 data brokers that have collected her information, a costly process that takes months. And at the end of it, another 120 companies, which do not offer an opt-out, still hold her data in their files.

She begins using a pre-paid "burner" phone for calls, and occasionally carries it in a metal-lined wallet to avoid it being tracked. But as a busy mother of two she finds being out of reach of the cellphone network impractical.

She tries software that encrypts her calls and emails but finds it difficult to use and struggles to find friends willing to use the software to decrypt her messages. "All the tools we have are awful," admits one of the developers of security software when Angwin turns to him for assistance.

She finds her countersurveillance measures — which include creating an alias with a fake address and false birth date details — stressful.

Mike Perry, a self-confessed "surveillance vegan" who keeps separate mobile phones for different facets of his life and has not even told his parents where he lives, offers an extreme example of where an obsession with privacy might lead.

"To be honest it's affected my ability to have close relationships," Perry tells the author with some poignancy.

It is hard to see all these efforts being worth it for anyone who is not:

a) a terrorist trying to avoid detection; or

b) the author of a book about surveillance.

But, apart from being an entertaining if somewhat disturbing read, this book does offer a few practical tips.

For example, creating stronger passwords is relatively easy and effective in increasing privacy. Angwin recommends a service called 1Password. Some other tools work reasonably well, too, such as Ghostery, which blocks Internet tracking, and DuckDuckGo, a Web browser that stores no search data. Even the less tech-savvy could try these.

Angwin tries to end on a positive note, arguing that, as with pollution, small steps and better laws might gradually improve Internet privacy.

"We didn't shut down the industrial economy to stop pollution. We simply asked the polluters to be more accountable for their actions.... Similarly we … just need to make the data handlers … more accountable for any harm," she writes.

But as freak snowstorms lash the U.S., it seems clear that the environmental analogy offers a fairly small hope to cling to.

The book is fast-paced and eye-opening, but don't count on it making you feel any better.

Palmer is a social media journalist at the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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