Habeus Data - A Review


Author: Arthur Hedge
August 14, 2018

Habeus Data , by Cyrus Farivar, is written at a critical time in our history. The ability of organizations, both governmental and commercial, to observe and collect vast amounts of information about our behavior is growing by leaps and bounds. In my opinion we are probably at the early stages of the ability to perform continual mass surveillance. What we have now is a far cry from what will exist in a decade, probably on a scale never before imagined. This book provides some deep insights into a subset of the issues raised by the increased technical monitoring abilities used by law enforcement and is worth the read.

The subtitle of the book is “Privacy vs. the Rise of Surveillance Tech.” Farivar, a technology journalist with Ars Technica, gives a very narrow look at the world of privacy. The focus is on based on American laws and practices as dealt with in the criminal justice system. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is central to the narrative of Habeus Data and it is repeated here:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The structure of the book is built around 10 Supreme Court cases and each is covered in a single chapter. This is very effective as the author does an excellent job telling the story of the original crime and proceedings and how the appeals process turns each of these innocuous cases into a landmark defining the rights of all Americans. There is continuity between the cases and the linkage is well written. Farivar provides extensive end notes for those interested in further scholarship in the area. If you want an education on the Fourth Amendment and current search and seizure rules, this book is a great place to start.

There is very little information on the larger topic of privacy as a right, except how it relates to criminal proceedings. The introduction and last chapter, “Who Watches the Watchers?” raise some points and it would be helpful if those were further explored. There is some discussion of the legislative process and how a few governmental bodies, such as Oakland are dealing with privacy in the criminal realm. This may reflect the apathy of many Americans. Beyond some simple debates after Edward Snowden’s leaks and the debates over the encryption of cell phones after the San Bernadino massacre, these topics are rarely discussed in public policy forums. Certainly, there are no great efforts in the legislative bodies in the US to develop societal guidelines around privacy and individual liberty. This is a far cry from the European Union where privacy rights have gained much more importance. After the passage of GDPR, this will certainly continue there.

This is not a philosophical book and one is not going to get a background on what privacy is, why it matters, and how technology is changing how privacy is perceived. One is far better off reading from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and specifically the writings of John Perry Barlow, https://www.eff.org/john-perry-barlow, if you want thought provoking ideas on how we might approach the future if we want to remain “private” citizens.