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Book reviews: ‘Zucked’, ‘Snowden’s Box’, ‘Keep Calm and Log On’

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Three new titles take different approaches to helping readers understand the importance of maintaining their online privacy.

The issue of digital privacy has acquired particular importance since the start of the pandemic that currently has the world in its grip. Just this week I listened with interest to a debate on BBC Radio 4 about how much control of personal data is ethical in epidemiological emergencies, when it may be important to urgently identify all the people an infected individual has been in contact with.

Whether it’s acceptable in that situation to use social media, alongside mobile phone data, to trace their movements is a difficult question to answer.

Three books published recently and written well before the Covid-19 set in are all particularly topical because each considers the ever-so-important matters of privacy and cyber security from slightly different perspectives.

Roger McNamee – financier, investor, guitarist and author of ‘Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe’ (HarperCollins, £9.99, ISBN 9780008319014) - is one of the most prominent figures in the small yet constantly expanding group of the Silicon Valley veterans whom I would describe as ‘social media defectors’. His most outspoken predecessor, Jaron Lanier, a former Silicon Valley guru, made his name by authoring a compact paperback with the persuasive and largely self-explanatory title, ‘Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Now’. The book became an international best-seller, and millions of people all over the globe - including yours truly - followed its advice.

Unlike Lanier, McNamee is not a technocrat, but a banker. As a former friend and mentor of Mark Zuckerberg, he was initially one of Facebook’s biggest champions, yet later became one of its fiercest critics. According to him, Facebook in its present form is an enemy of democracy and a threat to America’s national security, no less.

McNamee’s initial impression of Zuckerberg, he writes, was of “a classic Silicon Valley nerd”. (In McNamee’s view, “being a nerd is a good thing, especially for a technology entrepreneur”). From the beginning he acted not just as Zuck’s financial adviser, but also as his mate, whom the latter often consulted on matters of communication and team building.

It took McNamee several years of Facebook-watching to arrive at the conclusion that the organisation was inherently corrupt and anti-democratic. The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, when millions of Facebook users’ data was was illicitly harvested for political purposes, was one of the decisive factors that made McNamee jump ship.

McNamee chronicles how the once-admired start-up became a political mercenary. As he confesses in the epilogue to this pacey and revealing book, his main goal in writing it was not just to alert the general public to the dangers of big-data monopolisation and its potential for electronic interference. He says that he wanted to provide readers with the information on the dark side of global internet platforms – not just Facebook, but also Google and Twitter - which, in his view, are all in urgent need of control and containment to prevent them establishing a monopoly over our lives.

McNamee has certainly achieved his goal, and those of his devotees who haven’t yet deleted their social media accounts are likely to do so after reading ‘Zuck’.

Like ‘Zuck’, ‘Snowden’s Box’ by Jessica Bruder and Dale Maharidge (Verso, £12.99, ISBN 9781788733434) makes repeated reference to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. No wonder; as can be gleaned from the book’s subtitle, ‘Trust in the Age of Surveillance’, the protection of privacy is the main topic of this short, yet fluent and well-researched, work from a duo of US-based investigative journalists.

At its centre is the gripping story of a box belonging to Edward Snowden, the CIA whistleblower who leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013, which turned up outside a private apartment in Brooklyn, New York one fine spring morning. The recipient, who didn’t even know the sender, was supposed to pass it on to a filmmaker friend. The box contained the now-notorious printouts of the documents, directly implicating the US government in spying on its own people with the help of social media and mobile phone data.

Not willing to provide any spoilers, I won’t mention the intricacies of the book’s real-life plot and of the adventures of Snowden’s box – at times funny, at times bordering on surreal – on the way to its destination, for, despite the title, ‘Snowden’s Box’ is essentially not about the box as such, but, as the authors themselves, acknowledge, “about some of the most powerful analogue technology in the world: human relationships”. An appendix provides readers with advice about how to protect those precious relationships from intrusion and retain their own privacy in an age of all-permeating electronic espionage, their two main tips being: a) stay informed and b) get involved.

They could also add: “Be wary of what you reveal about yourself in social media”.

Unlike ‘Snowden’s Box’ or ‘Zucked’, ‘Keep Calm and Log On: Your Handbook for Surviving the Digital Revolution’ by Gillian ‘Gus’ Andrews (The MIT Press, £20, ISBN 9780262538763) doesn’t pose any moral or ethical dilemmas, albeit its ultimate goal, or ‘supertask’, to quote Konstantin Stanislavski, is largely the same: to help internet users survive the digital revolution without being swept away.

By and large, this is an accessible, well structured and often funny cyber-security manual. Let’s face it: despite the proliferation of similar digital self-help titles, most are tedious and hard-to-comprehend. This one is different though, because it is fun to read.

The only exception I take to the manual is its title – which parodies the overused WWII morale-boosting slogan, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Something a bit more original would better reflect the true nature of a book from which we can all learn a lot.

Here’s one example. In our digital age, we all struggle with memorising numerous passwords. Andrews offers a simple, unexpected (and dare I say witty?) solution: “…There’s nothing wrong with clicking ‘Forgot my password’ every time you log in… When the system asks you to enter a new password, put in a huge long string of random garbage you don’t even have to remember. Just mash  the keyboard. Get ready to copy and paste, though – you have to be able to enter the password twice to confirm it. The next time you go to log in, click ‘Forgot my password’ again, start the process over, and have the reset sent to your email or phone. Enter a new long string of garbage as your password.”

Simples. And no need to memorise another password ever again!

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