Book Reviews: Information Security Books and Product Reviews – Virtual Shadows

Book Title: Virtual Shadows

Subtitle: Your Privacy in the Information Society

Author: Karen Lawrence Öqvist

Publisher: The British Computer Society (BCS)

Date of Publishing: 20 December 2008

ISBN(13): 9781906124090

Price (UK&US price – full price, not discounted price): £14.99,   $24.99

URL of Amazon UK web page: Virtual Shadows: Your Privacy in the Information Society

URL of Amazon UK (Kindle) web page: Virtual Shadows: Your Privacy in the Information Society

URL of Amazon US web page: Virtual Shadows – Your Privacy in the Information Society

URL of Amazon US (Kindle) web page: Virtual Shadows

Karen Lawrence Öqvist’s book, “Virtual Shadows-Your Privacy in the Information Society,” informs and potentially fuels the debate regarding tensions between personal privacy and disclosure of information and surveillance by governments and commercial companies, and the balance between privacy and safety and security.Early in the book the fundamental dichotomy of the subject is laid out with a quotation by David Brin: “Whenever a conflict arises between privacy and accountability, people demand the former for themselves and the latter from everyone else.” Virtual Shadows manages to weave the technological and social themes well to describe how the two impact on each other.This review was written from a 2009 perspective – before the Arab Spring was driven by online collaboration, before Google was discovered to have recorded private Wi-Fi details as part of the Street View survey, and before Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) declared that, “privacy is no longer a social norm.” As such, the reader of Virtual Shadows may see some of the contents as vaguely prophetic.Virtual Shadows is aimed at a non-technical audience making it accessible to teenagers upwards. It is written in a mixture of styles from academic to narrative, but this serves to give emphasis to the point being made rather than distracting from the argument. This is not a book for security professionals looking for deep technical insight, but is an excellent description of the social drivers behind online collaboration and communication. Generally the text and flow of the discussion is easy to follow, but now and again terms are introduced that are not explained until later in the book, sometimes several chapters later.The scope of Virtual Shadows is wide-ranging and possibly a little too ambitious for a book of less than 200 pages, which is arranged in six chapters as follows: * “Introduction” – sets the backdrop to the book by describing legislation being enacted to protect our privacy, and to establish privacy as a right, but goes on to show how these rights are been undermined by legislation increasing the powers of governments around the world to extend the scope of their surveillance operations. This characterizes the ‘arms race’ between privacy and surveillance legislation well, and uses the ‘boiling frog’ analogy to underline how these changes are passing by largely unnoticed.* “The Online Information Society” – describes changes in society, in the context of information, that have brought us to the present day. This includes the emergence of online communities as a new phenomenon. This is an excellent overview of the social aspects of the Information Society, as promoted by the Internet in general and Web 2.0 in particular. A sizable section then gives a tutorial on blogging in its many forms. While this serves to provide more context and additional detail about the behavior of an individual wishing to share information within a virtual community, specific issues relating to privacy are not drawn out explicitly.Other facets of online interaction covered include online relationships, RSS feeds, mobile communications and an interesting section documenting the emergence of ‘new age addictions’ describing a new class of problems specific to an ‘always on’ society.* “Having Fun Safely Online: Some Golden Rules” – defines and describes identity, privacy and reputation, and does a thorough job of explaining the risks in these areas, notably associated with persistence, searchability, replicability and the invisible audience. This chapter is probably the most useful for the general reader intending to reduce their exposure to online risk. Various tips are provided, including the recommendation to use Google to assess the extent of digital residue online, which is perhaps slightly ironic given Google retains a record of all searches made. Oddly, little mention is made of the many and varied uses of HTTP cookies and precautions that could be taken to limit their effect on privacy, nor of the use of private browsing now supported by many web browsers.* “Your Children’s Online Safety” – opens with a description of the opportunity presented to children by the ‘Virtual Playground’ but quickly moves on to the risks of encountering offensive material, and predators such as paedophiles. A useful set of guidelines and advice for children online is provided, and this is one of the major strengths of this book. Advice is also provided to parents about how to monitor your child’s online behavior, but again the irony of invading the child’s privacy is not discussed.* “All in the Name of National Safety” – provides a framework for the discussion of privacy – information privacy, bodily privacy, communications privacy and territorial privacy. It includes a wide-ranging discussion of the development of global legislation, but strangely there is no coverage of the UK Freedom of Information Act (FoIA). The issues around data collection and the risks associated with linking or aggregating information into a single database from a security perspective are discussed. Also discussed are loyalty cards, online shopping, use and sources of DNA, wiretapping, profiling, privacy in the workplace, surveillance devices, ID cards and others.* “Our Choice of Future” – concludes the book by stating that individuals have very limited control over much of their information and how it is used, and that tomorrow (in the near future) there may be no choice at all. Overall this book gives a good overview of the social aspects of the Information Society, especially the Internet and Web 2.0 technologies, as well as providing a backgrounder on related global legislation. Although the book is subtitled, “Your Privacy in the Information Society,” in fact the contents embrace a wider discussion of the rights and safety of individuals versus the perceived needs of governments in maintaining national security.

As Öqvist states: “The message is clear: the information age has unleashed a surveillance society that feeds on our imaginary fear fuelled by media hype”.

Öqvist’s “Virtual Shadows” is an ambitious, and consequently slightly flawed, treatment of issues of personal privacy and national security in the context of online communication in the Information Age. Everyone ‘online’ should read this book to understand the risks they are taking and to appreciate how the future may unfold.

Marks: 4 out of 5