Saturday, June 27, 2009

Secrecy and Disclosure

Ronald Goldfarb, In Confidence: When to Protect Secrecy and When to Require Disclosure (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)

Ross Clark, The Road to Big Brother: One Man’s Struggle Against the Surveillance Society (New York: Encounter Books, 2009)

These two new books provide interesting perspectives on the issues of secrecy and privacy in society. Goldfarb, a lawyer and literary agent, provides a balanced analysis, advocating “that, as a matter of social policy, confidentiality should be encouraged and expanded and notions of privilege should be reconsidered and confined to clear and commanding situations” (p. 35). He provides excellent discussion about attorney-client privilege and the problems posed by the outsourcing of records, medical confidentiality and the need for access to patient records for effective treatment, psychotherapists and confidentiality, pastoral privilege, business confidentiality, journalists and the protection of sources, government secrecy and accountability in a democratic society, and the troubling impact of technology on secrecy and privacy. He reviews considerable case law, and he carefully weighs the pros and cons of when matters should be sealed and when they should be disclosed. “Confidentiality is a goal, not an absolute, and one that must be balanced against competing goals” (p. 231). Clark, an English journalist, has written a rant against all the various devices and approaches being used to watch us by government, business, and even private citizens. He discusses CCTV cameras, DNA fingerprints, Sex offenders’ registration, national ID cards, national databases, the use of satellite imagery, the collection and use of financial data, medical records, and so forth. Where Goldfarb seeks to consider the various issues associated with secrecy and privacy, Clark intends to present the most extreme of cases, rousing us to action. Clark ends his book in this fashion: “When the government calls me in to have a microchip implanted under my skin, I’m not going. If the time comes when we are treated like groceries in a supermarket distribution center, that’s it. I will be going underground, or rather taking to the hills and forests where I will hunt, scavenge – and officially cease to exist. I may even see you there” (p. 129). Goldfarb’s book is one to be used in one of my courses, while Clark’s provides a good personal account intended to provoke reflection (and, in a sense, is an extended footnote to the Goldfarb study).

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