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VIDEO Q&A: New Allen Book explores the need for privacy protections in an overexposed world

December 05, 2011

Anita Allen, the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at Penn Law, is an expert on privacy law, bioethics, and contemporary values, and is recognized for her scholarship about legal philosophy, women’s rights, and race relations. In her most recent book, Unpopular Privacy: What Must We Hide, Allen offers insight into the ethical and political underpinnings of public policies mandating privacies that people may be indifferent to or even despise.

Allen recently discussed her book with the Law School’s Office of Communications for this video feature.



Unpopular Privacy: What Must We Hide I’m Anita Allen, professor of Law and Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, and my new book is called Unpopular Privacy: What Must We Hide?

Unpopular Privacy is a book that has a very special mission. Most books about privacy explain why we need privacy or defend why the government should give people the option of privacy. My book takes the unusual stance of saying, OK, we want the government to protect privacy but also want people to want privacy. The book seeks to explain why it is important that we actually consider imposing privacy on society that may be enthralled by social media and other electronic devices that involve giving away or exposing ourselves to the general public.

The aim is to really assess the scholarly perspective that has been so resistant and hesitant to admit paternalistic laws into the picture. We tend to think that law should be paternalistic only when it comes to children. Well, my argument is that there is something about technology and the Internet, its complexity, its novelty, which justifies a more aggressive approach to protect people from their own lack of interest in privacy.

This book took a very long time to write. I began writing this book in the late 1990s and it took a long time to write because the world kept changing: 9/11 rewrote the terms of social life creating a need for more security, more monitoring. So, every time I thought I was about to finish this book, we would get a great cataclysm, it could be 9/11, it could be financial meltdown, and all of these things which may not obviously have to do with privacy, they actually resulted in changes in privacy laws… and so the world was not standing still.

I finally decided that the world was never going to stand still and I had to write the book. But I think the book now reflects thinking about what we need by way of privacy in a highly regulated context and we need… unfortunately, more regulations and also more personal ethics. One of the big points my book makes is that if a person is going to enjoy the kind of privacy he or she needs moving forward, we have to have law in place but also personal ethics in place that lead us to value our own privacy, and to value our own opportunities that stem from a world in which we can in fact control access to information.

This transcript was edited for length.