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Wide Open Privacy - a review

Two of AVG's senior execs give advice on how to manage privacy in the digital age.

The book was originally published in November 2012, although iTWire only received a copy of this book in March. We have been mulling over how best to treat the material ever since.

The book "Wide Open Privacy: Strategies for the Digital Life" by AVG's (now ex-) CEO J.R. Smith and Chief Policy Officer Siobhan MacDermott has a lot going for it, and (unfortunately) a lot of negatives too. So, let's get those negatives out of the way first.

Firstly, the book was crying (nay, screaming) out for two additional contributors - a good editor and an even better layout stylist. The content is somewhat flabby and repetitive, the layout unfortunately is BORING. There is plenty of content that could have been assisted by illustrations, diagrams, lists; it would have benefitted even more from some variety in the presentation. Instead it looks more like a student essay.

Secondly, the authors seemed unsure who their audience ought to be. Although (generally) attempting to appeal to the digital non-native; the delivery quickly excludes this audience. There are also errors in specifics of technology, but given the audience, these are not important.

So, what did we like? Actually, quite a lot.

Written in a chatty style, we are taken on something of a hay-ride through the basics of privacy and the differences between the US and European lawmaker's views of privacy ("The EU regards e-commerce providers as inevitably predatory. The US sees them as capable of being predatory.").

We also peek over the shoulders of web-based communicators and observe how easy it is to load simple communications with additional meanings quite different to those intended by the sender. The authors remind us of the research of Albert Mehrabian (he of the 55% body language, 38% tone-of-voice, 7% content) who described how much we 'like' the feelings being communicated by someone. As they say, no wonder we frequently miss-interpret the tone of a message when all we have are the words in a chat screen - we're missing 93% of the 'feelings.'

Those shoulders over which we peek also support a great many chips and with this in mind, Smith and MacDermott remind us of the tale of "Dog Poop Girl" in Korea where a girl who offends the morals of those around her is subjected to a nation-wide outing ('doxing' might be a more modern term) in a frenzy of moralistic pride.

Hell hath no fury like the anonymous poster.

Moving on from the various communication dangers (and we have touched on but a tiny salacious few of the book's examples), the authors turn their attention to a moderately technical description of the various dangers delivered to users by the Internet. This laundry-list includes viruses, rootkits, email hacking and worms to list but a few. Some counter-measures are also offered (for instance, make sure passwords are longer than 7 characters and don't include your pet's name).

Further they take a moment to reflect… "You recall the fate of Humpty Dumpty. All the king's horses and all the king's men could not put him back together again. In many of life's activities and episodes, once the egg is broken, it stays broken, the spilled beans are spilled for good, and the cat, let out of the bag, does not meekly return to it. This may or may not be the case with damaging items posted by you or others on Facebook and similar social websites.

"If you have second thoughts about a post on your wall, go on a wall-scrubbing mission."

Worse, even if you are in control of your own destiny (and can control those who would write about you) the social media sites are endlessly changing the rules - the author's note Facebook's mid-2012 action of replacing many users' contact email addresses with an equivalent @facebook address. This was done both without any 'permission' and also retrospectively - all references to email in old posts were replaced.

When offering some thoughts on keeping oneself private, there is some 'amusing' advice. For instance, point 9 on page 101 (at least in our edition) states, "Keep your mobile phone turned off as much as you possibly can." Yeah, right!

As the book progresses, we move from the micro to the macro and there is a brief discussion around state-based surveillance ("One Nation, Under Surveillance") which is unfortunately somewhat twee given more recent events.

Finally, the book addresses the family and makes the interesting observation that the supposed generation gap which seeks to separate digital natives from (shall we call them) digital phobes really doesn't exist. Throughout history, the young have adopted new ways of communicating which their elders have struggled to grasp. The Internet is merely one new step on this continuum.

The book closes of course with the de rigeur discussion of the "personal brand" and how we must control it on the Internet.

Unfortunately, there is a level of dissatisfaction with both the development of the argument and the "call to action" that closes it.

One is left with the feeling that this book started with high hopes and ended up being finished in something of a rush. The material and background research was good, but the delivery failed to match the expectations. This probably also explains the layout and presentation.

Our recommendation is that this is a book best used as a resource by the digerati to drip-feed to their acolytes as necessary and it contains a good level of pithy summaries to 'borrow' as required.

The book is currently on sale at Amazon for $13.46 in paper form, or for $9.95 on the Kindle.

(note: this review was written some months ago and for reasons unknown, not published at the time. The original has been updated to reflect current events and pricing)


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