Privacy in the Information Age Is Not a Lost Cause

A champion of better protections for citizens and consumers argues that her fight is not a waste of time—and draws on history to justify her optimism.

Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters

Is privacy a relic of the past given the array of governments and corporations determined to hoover up information about all of us as fully as technology permits it?

Julia Angwin doesn’t think so.

The Pro Publica journalist argues that those fighting to better protect privacy aren’t wasting their time, even as the Information Age accelerates. And she explained her optimism at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, with an analogy. Consider the Industrial Revolution, she urged.

Like advances in information technology, industrialization made societies more efficient, more productive, and wealthier––but those gains came at a heavy cost, for those who lived through the period of rapid industrialization made due with dangerous factories and horrific pollution, among other ills. At the time, those ills struck many as permanent features too entrenched or perhaps even too inevitable to counter.

But others fought for industrial reforms, pushing society toward measures that better protected the environment and workers. Indeed, the conditions that prevailed in the early years of the Industrial Revolution would be unthinkable in the U.S. today.

Why shouldn’t the Information Age prove as malleable to reformers?

And for now, Angwin offers a list of privacy tools on her web site that anyone can use to better protect information that they would otherwise give over to third parties.