By: John A. Riolo, PhD, LICSW
Book review of
Privacy: The Lost Right , by Jon L. Mills. Published by Oxford University Press, New York, 2008. 362 pages, $52.00.
In an age when privacy seems elusive, everyone is experiencing some pressure or threat to privacy. As social workers, we are often responsible to protect the privacy or confidentiality of our clients, as well. Jon Mills, professor of law at the University of Florida and a former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, has written an extremely useful book to help us understand and cope with the challenge.
Written for the layperson with a minimum of legal jargon, the book’s main premise is that technology has created a situation in which, at any given time, we can be observed by others. In effect, we are living in a virtual Panopticon, a prison where everyone can be easily observed. This type of situation creates a climate in which one may be fearful about sharing information even when it is necessary. And ironically, it may also create a situation in which we share too much in the wrong places and times.
As social workers, we not only encounter this phenomenon with our clients, but we experience it ourselves. Our clients may be reluctant to share information out of fear that what they reveal in therapy will be disclosed elsewhere, and as social workers, we often fear that our records will be subpoenaed and used against us or our clients in courts or other venues. At the same time, many of our clients and many of us, as well, share more than is wise about ourselves and others on social networks, bulletin boards, and listservs.
Mills offers us a very useful paradigm of how our private information can get into the public domain. He takes us through the four sources of intrusion when it comes to privacy: the government, the press, business, and other citizens.
Examples include subpoenas/court orders of private information; investigative journalism; collection of data by businesses for marketing purposes; and simple snooping by family, friends, and neighbors. These intrusions often are legal, and other times they are not. However, once private information becomes public, even if it was originally made public through illegal means, we often lose any further expectations of privacy. Others are then free to further disclose that same information, making it more available to a wider public. Without contractual obligations, you can’t tell people to forget they heard something or forbid them to tell others about what they heard.
Perhaps the most important point that Mills reminds us about is the fact that a great deal of our loss of privacy is voluntarily. We ourselves release a substantial amount of our private information in any number of ways for a variety of reasons, including convenience. When we do so, we in effect abandon any expectation of privacy. These days, the primary way most of us do this is to publish information about ourselves on social networks such as Facebook, MySpace, bulletin boards, discussion groups, and listservs. If it once was private, it is no longer once we make it public.
The implication for social workers is that when we discuss our work online with colleagues, we not only tend to reveal a good deal of information about ourselves, but we also often disclose information about clients, which then no longer is private.
The only way to truly protect what may be left of this lost right is to understand the factors that impinge on our privacy and take appropriate precautions. In this regard, Privacy: The Lost Right is an invaluable resource.
Reviewed by John A. Riolo, PhD, LICSW, retired mental health practitioner, host of educational Web sites and blogs for consumers and practitioners of mental health, which include: Civil Discourse Blog, The Insider, Your Advocate Online, Law and Ethics In Mental Health, and Listen to the Insider Podcast Series.