13 Books on Privacy, Data & Social Media You Must Read

data privacy

The controversy around WhatsApp’s revised privacy regulations sparked off a debate on data security, privacy rights and how technology and platform companies sell customer data. Here’s a list of books, arranged year-wise, which can help you cut the clutter on data, tech, society and beyond.  

  1. 1984, by George Orwell (1949). The ultimate guide to understanding mass surveillance, how the Big Brother uses information (data) to control the lesser mortals. The sequel to Orwell’s own Animal Farm is a perfect start for anyone wishing to study today’s social media and the data dystopia it powers. The book arguably has the best line that can help us in our fight against the algorithmic hyper realities of the day: “Sanity is not statistical.”
  2. Society of the Spectacle (La société du spectacle) by Guy Debord (1967). Not an easy read. But this is one of the best books that can help you fathom the madness around, even though the book was written at a time ‘social media’ was nowhere in the vicinity. “Rather than talk of the spectacle, people often prefer to use the term ‘media,’” wrote Debord, a French Marxist who was also a founding member of the Situationist International. 
  3. The Fall of the Public Man, by Richard Sennett (1974). One of the most intuitive works on the 20th Century society and its metamorphosis into a withdrawn, self-centred and apolitical entity. The new revised edition offers a great critique of the digital technology-led social media society. Sennett is sharp: “…narcissism is an obsession with “what this person, that event means to me.” This question about the personal relevance of other people and outside acts is posed so repetitively that a clear perception of those persons and events in themselves is obscured.” Sounds familiar, social media?
  4. Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, by Bruce Schneier (2015). One of the most insightful studies on data capitalism. Schneier studies how information is used for surveillance by governments, corporations and other agencies. His analysis holds a mirror to society, offering an uneasy image. “…Much of this is voluntary: we cooperate with corporate surveillance because it promises us convenience, and we submit to government surveillance because it promises us protection.” 
  5. Platform Capitalism, by Nick Srnicek (2016). Short but substantial, Srnicek’s work is definitive and detailed. A great starting point for researchers and students of platform capitalism and its perils. Srnicek, the author of Inventing the Future, studies the business of data-powered platforms right from their inception in the 1970s to the current times. It offers great insights into the relationship between digital tech and society. 
  6. Data for the People: How to Make Our Post-Privacy Economy Work for You, by Andreas Weigend (2017). A fairly optimistic take on the data-powered world, looking into ways in which people can make data work for them. Weigend focuses on Big Data analytics and its usefulness in everyday life. His take: Data companies use old standards and force upon the user harmful contracts. Change the regime by taking control of your data. Set your own terms.   
  7. We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves, by John Cheney-Lippold (2017). Cheney-Lippold is a pessimist-realist. The book has suitably dull prose but the depth of its research will surprise you. The book is a detailed almanac on the algorithmic way of life, tracking how everything that we do in the digital world leaves data footprints of ours that algorithms trace, track and trade. This is an eerie souvenir on how algorithms curate every bit of our digital life, from what search, like, click, read and buy.
  8. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O’Neil (2016). One of the most engaging books in the discipline. O’Neil is a data scientist. She exposes the dangers of data-powered analytics controlled by big tech companies. Arguably the best crash course you can have on the dangers of data. “Big Data processes codify the past. They do not invent the future. Doing that requires moral imagination, and that’s something only humans can provide.”  
  9. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier (2018). Remember the seminal 1978 work, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, by Jerry Mander? This one can be the social media era successor of the book. Lanier calls himself a computer philosophy writer and he has no good news to offer. The ten arguments he makes include the obvious and imminent, such as social media makes you lose your free will; it is undermining truth; it is destroying your capacity for empathy, and it is making politics impossible. 
  10. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, by Shoshana Zuboff (2019). This is a modern classic. Zuboff, whom the Financial Times called the true prophet of the information age is a Harvard Business School professor. Zuboff’s research is mind-boggling. She unravels the data-powered new capitalism by offering a blow-by-blow account of its workings. Zuboff tells you all that you wanted to know about how companies abuse your personal data and privacy to make profits and how the surplus data becomes fodder for creating predictive products that will power mass surveillance. The book is a clarion call for arming ourselves with a strong digital literacy apparatus in order to put up a great fight for freedom from the tyranny of data.      
  11. Cyber Privacy: Who Has Your Data and Why You Should Care, by April Falcon Doss (2020). Doss is a cybersecurity and data-privacy expert. The book looks into the toxic data practices of companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and governments including the US and more. Doss tells us how companies and several other agencies use data illegally and with consumer, consent to profile people, change their behaviours and choices and make them commit activities they might not be ready for. This book will help you understand how scandals such as the Cambridge Analytica emerged and what can be done about it.
  12. Identity Reboot: Reimagining Data Privacy for the 21st Century, by Arwen Smit (2020). Smit offers a futuristic take on the world of data and its myriad formations, to tell us why we should change our current approaches towards data privacy. In Smit’s own words, the book argues that in the 21st century, data privacy precedes human capacity for reason. She elaborates on how crucial and fundamental factors such as data autonomy, data equity and data privacy should power the future of data business across the globe.     
  13. Life after Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society, by Firmin DeBrabander (2020). DeBrabander offers a detailed add-on to Shoshana Zuboff’s work on surveillance capitalism. The book seeks how we can protect freedom in a world where privacy becomes non-existent (and that world is soon to be here). The book can be read along with the upcoming book, Privacy is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data by Carissa Véliz (2021).   

Also Read: Three Books to Understand Platform Capitalism

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