Robert Scheer SI Podcast SI: Human Rights & Civil Rights Surveillance

Neil Richards: Is It Too Late to Protect Our Privacy in the Internet Age?

Leading privacy lawyer Neil Richards joins Robert Scheer to discuss his new book “Why Privacy Matters” and whether we can still claw back some control over our personal data.

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In recent decades, as the internet grew to play a key role in nearly every aspect of our daily lives, the price we all paid—many of us without realizing—is a practically universal loss of privacy. Conversations surrounding online privacy, who should have our personal data and what should they be able to do with it, have ebbed and flowed over the years, even as internet behemoths like Google and Meta (formerly Facebook) have grown unprecedentedly powerful, capitalizing on the most intimate details of our lives. At times of crisis, such as the September 11 attacks and now the COVID-19 pandemic, governments and corporations alike convinced many of us that the loss of privacy was a small price to pay for safety—be that national security or public health.

Privacy legal expert Neil Richards.
Privacy legal expert Neil Richards. [ Washington University School of Law]

Privacy legal expert Neil Richards, however, isn’t buying these narratives and is here to remind us how critical privacy is to individuals with his aptly titled new book “Why Privacy Matters.” Joining host Robert Scheer on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” the two discuss how we got to this dystopian point, and whether we have in fact passed a point of no return when it comes to privacy. Richards outlines how various moments in recent history became missed opportunities to meaningfully protect sensitive information from being exploited by corporations and governments. Praising NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden for revealing the extent to which the U.S. government has spied on everyone from world leaders to its own citizens, the leading privacy lawyer also offers a glimmer of hope regarding how we can collectively protect our privacy, knowing what we now know about surveillance. 

Richards, who grew up in the North of England where the Industrial Revolution took off in the 18th century, points to the gains made in labor conditions over the following century to address the horrors of the socioeconomic shift as evidence that things can still change for the better after a major disruption. There is time, he argues, to fight against some of the most dangerous pitfalls of the internet age; and progress has already been made, such as the European Union’s strict General Data Protection Regulation.

“It’s not just the collection of data that we need to worry about, it’s the uses that the data is put to,” says Richards. “We need to ask: How is the information being used? What rules are governing the ways in which that information is being used? And whose values do they serve? Do they serve corporate values of making profit? Do they serve the values of government? Or do they serve the values of individual people to be politically free?”

Scheer, whose book, “They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and  Snooping Government Agencies are Destroying Democracy,” is less hopeful than Richards when it comes to the future of privacy. To the “Scheer Intelligence” host, one possible solution is to break up Big Tech with antitrust laws, a path that Richards agrees is one of several ways that privacy issues can be addressed.

Listen to the full conversation between Richards and Scheer as the two consider not only why privacy matters, but why the fight to protect privacy is essential to the survival of democracy. 



Robert Scheer


Joshua Scheer


    1. @JustAMaverick
      It’s NOT too late. We’re still here, aren’t we?

      Never give up hope unless something is literally impossible. The realistic expectations might be bleak, but I’ve learned from both sports and life in general that if you keep trying, you might be surprised at what you can accomplish.

  1. When I have voiced these concerns, starting about 15 years ago, many people responded that they had nothing to hide, and if you don’t have something to hide, you have nothing to worry about. This misses the point that we all have a right to our privacy regardless of whether we have anything to hide. But unfortunately, many if not most people have bought into the police state propaganda that if you have nothing to hide, who cares. Humans may be beyond redemption.

    1. We all have some to hide.
      With over 330,000 criminal statutes in the US, were all criminals.
      And, if you cross that invisible, shifting, red line, the legal machine will take that person into the hopper, and grind out a criminal.
      This is a nation of men, not just adjudication.

      1. @Southpaw
        When I was younger and more carefree, as a protest against the multitude of unjust laws like drug laws, I used to say that I tried to break at least one law every day, hopefully a felony. Nothing violent, I never hurt anyone, but as you say there are so many laws that it’s very difficult to not break one or more every time you leave your home. There are too many laws for poor and average people, but not enough for the rich & powerful (who make the laws, so of course they don’t make laws against their own interests). And the tepid and small number of laws that do exist supposedly to constrain the rich & powerful are almost never enforced.

    2. Yes, that’s what everyone said “as long as you don’t do anything wrong”. The question is, what if “they” do something wrong? We have no recourse. We are powerless. The Gestapo, the Stasi, described as the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies to have ever existed. Child’s play compared to Google, Facebook, NSA, The Deep State! Anyone with that much information about us should be our psychiatrist! We are all now hopeless captives In an eternal data ghetto!

      1. @Bruce
        And who gets to say whether you did something “wrong”? After all, laws are artificial human creations subject to the whims of whoever makes them, not some natural set of laws like those of ecology or physics. That’s yet another problem with that attitude. But again, people have been successfully brainwashed, including living in constant fear and being willing to accept police state laws in order to feel safe.

  2. There used to be more class consciousness of how technology works against us as long as ownership and control over the means of production, and existence, remain in the hands of capitalists rather than workers. As Marx observed of the systemic set-up of capitalist class rule, any technological revolution in the means of production inevitably serves ruling class self-interests, not least of all in alienating and enslaving us all the more, while workers must constantly relearn how to resist on ever-changing strategic terrain of class war.

    The days when Luddites smashed the machines to which early wage slaves of factories were chained are now long behind us. Ever since propaganda technology was revolutionized with WW1 and the manufacture of consent took Taylor’s scientific management from factory to culture at large, Americans increasingly have been inmates building our own prisons, colonized within a cultural hegemony of capital by increasingly centralized ownership over the means of communication and cultural production. If as McLuhan said the medium is the message, the message is that ‘we the people’ successively have been conditioned to communicate more with machines than our own kind, as proliferating mechanized means of both labor and leisure converge upon human consciousness captive to their programmed control.

    Post-WWII, and television had masses telling lies to themselves thanks to this American Dream machine soon enough invading most every home, transforming families, communities, and civil society into atomized extensions of consumer culture. Countercultural movements of the 60s revived some neo-Luddite resistance by “technocracy’s children” (Christopher Lasch), only to see recolonization of popular revolt by rollback of its cultural gains on behalf of grassroots, decentralized democracy redirected into the libertarian ideology of neoliberalism and market revolutions in lifestyle rebellion branding identities like any other commodity fetish.

    The digital revolution, sold to the American consumer with all the hype of Democracy, Inc., especially as the new (replacement) youth revolt coming out of Silicon Valley garages, moved us into the matrix which the national security state had long been planning for us, as this product of the Pentagon came to be planted not only in homes but on us virtually 24/7 like a pocketsize Panopticon and electronic leash.

    Now it’s the 4th industrial revolution, as our masters instruct us, and its biodigital convergence aims to complete the historical process of the colonization of consciousness, no longer in our homes and hands but in our bodies and brains. Perception management gives way to means of control which will become our perceptions as man and machine finally merge under AI. Well-prepared zombie hordes of techno-idolaters following the Science line up for their injections of nanotech and graphene and more in experimental transition to the new abnormal’s technocratic totalitarianism.

    Protecting privacy seems all too tame in the face of what’s coming at us after all these generations of class war. Is it too late to smash the machines? Too late to revolutionize the means of production by the power of the people?

    1. You outline the issues well. But take heart; there are other more fundamental laws which will, in due course, have hold sway. These are the thermodynamic realities within which all living and non-living entities exist. Our civilization will not continue in its current form once we have depleted the earth’s accessible fossil fuels and rare earth metals – and these are depleting rapidly. Currently our internet servers and data storage facilities consume nearly 15% of the energy we produce as a global community. It is estimated that on its current course the ‘internet of things’ and its attendant digital architecture will require roughly 50% of global energy by 2050. But the reality is that we are not going to be able to provide this energy once cheap oil, coal and rare earth metals are used up. So-called renewable energy sources can not and will not ever reproduce the energy surpluses that allowed our modern, global, capitalist civilization to emerge. Renewables, unlike the almost magically energy dense fossil fuels, will not even be able to provide sufficient energy to sustain even 1920s levels of infrastructure, let alone the techno-future fantasies of our present day digital overlords . The plain fact is that we will have no choice but to downsize our civilization considerably, in terms of both population and industrial outputs. Computer chips, wiring and batteries can not be fashioned out of wood.

      1. @Norman Wynter
        Well said!

        I would go further: humans can’t live unnaturally without immorally killing other species and destroying ecosystems. For example, solar and wind require mining and produce toxic chemicals, and cause other harms such as killing birds. The only way to stop harming the Earth and the life here is to live naturally in naturally small numbers. Before agriculture, there were only 5-10 million people on the entire planet. Now we have cities with more people! The movie Planet of the Humans and the book Deep Green Lies make this point perfectly, the book more directly and in much more detail than the movie. Humans need to grow up an stop fantasizing about having our cake and eating it too. Sorry, things don’t work that way in this universe.

        We need to learn from the more mentally and spiritually advanced people on Earth, namely the hunter-gatherer societies that have focused on expanding their consciousness, on empathy, and on wisdom, instead of the crap that modern humans focus on. That’s the path forward, not ever more intellect and ego, which lead to ever more technology. The latter means ever more death and destruction, both for the Earth and all other species, and eventually for humans also.

  3. Privacy has always been a myth in America. In practice, the Fourth amendment is just about as consequential (and worthless) as a protection from abuse order.
    The Internet was never meant to protect privacy. Quite the opposite. The net, and particularly social sites like Facebook, were literally created to eliminate the concept of privacy by getting people to post their personal identifiable information for all to see, making the jobs of advertisers, your employer, the government, or your ex so much easier.
    We now live in a society where the last two generations, millennials, and gen Z, came of age in the electronic era and thus have no expectations of privacy whatsoever. Even worse, they have no concept of it. And that is how you change a society without firing a shot. You start in kindergarten and teach a whole generation that up is down, black is white, freedom is slavery….well you get it from here.

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