Great Fictional Works About Privacy and Security

Daniel Solove
Founder of TeachPrivacy

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By Daniel J. Solove

At my annual event, the Privacy+Security Forum, which was held last month, one of the sessions  involved privacy and security in fiction. The panelists had some terrific readings suggestions, and I thought I’d share with you the write-up that they generated for their session. The speakers were:

Peter Winn, Assistant U.S. Attorney, U.S. DOJ and Lecturer, University of Washington School of Law

Heather West, Senior Policy Manager & Americas Principal, Mozilla

Kevin Bankston, Director, Open Technology Institute and Co-Director, Cybersecurity Initiative, New America

Joseph Jerome, Policy Counsel at Future of Privacy Forum

The following is their discussion of the books. I quote from them directly, so everything below consists of their words and recommendations:

Sherlock Holmes canon, Arthur Conan Doyle

The Princess of Cleves, Madame de La Fayette (1678)

This early French romantic novel was published anonymously during the reign of Louis XIV, becoming a wildly popular best-seller.  It is a classic still assigned to French high school students today.  Written by a great-grandmother of the American Revolutionary War hero, the author was born to a minor noble family, served as a maid of honor to the Queen, and married the Marquis de La Fayette.  She then presided over a famous Paris salon frequented by such luminaries as La Rochefoucauld, Racine, Boileau and Pascal.  Her novel reflects a society in transition, from a world where marriage is simply a legal relationship involving sex, property and social position, to one involving the ideal of mutual affection, respect and dignity. 

The plot involves an arranged marriage leaving a Princess with a husband she does not love.  The husband nevertheless is passionately in love with his wife, and tortured by her failure to reciprocate his feelings.  The Princess meets and falls in love with the handsome and charming Count of Nemours, who also falls passionately in love with her.  The Princess nevertheless carefully conceals her feelings from the Count.  Her jealous husband eventually forces his wife to confess that she does in fact have feelings for another man, although she does not disclose for whom.  Nemours happens to eavesdrop on this conversation between the couple, speaks of the incident (without reference to the lady), but it nevertheless gets back to the Princess. 

Later, Nemours, who like the husband is still desperately trying to determine whom the Princess loves, spies on her alone at night through her window.  The princess thinking she is alone, is looking wistfully at a painting of Nemours, while fingering some ribbons with the Nemours family colors.  Nemours, discerning the truth about the Princess’s feelings, begins to approach the Princess, but she sees him outside her window and immediately leaves the room.  Meanwhile, the suspicious husband, who also is spying on his wife, wrongfully concludes that his wife consummated the relationship with Nemours.  The husband tortured even more, goes into a deep depression and dies.  The Princess, who is now free to marry the man she loves, rejects Nemours when he asks her for her hand.  She explains that she cannot forgive Nemours for his invasion of her privacy that caused the death of her husband.  She withdraws into a convent where she eventually dies. 

Interestingly, the novelist does not condemn Nemours’ conduct, but rather depicts a toxic society so pre-occupied with prying into the private lives of others, that even where there is a deep and meaningful emotional bond between two people, a relationship based on mutual affection, respect and dignity, becomes impossible.  The novel constitutes a profound criticism of the old code of manners as an art of living in public and together.  Instead, the novel holds out as an ideal a new code of manners that emphasizes the need to respect the privacy of others.    

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (1813)


We can finally see the embodiment of the new code of manners that respects the privacy of others in the relationship of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.  The novel is replete with instances involving the management of sensitive personal information, an exercise in which Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett consistently excel.  The most salient example of this can be seen when, after Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s proposal of marriage, giving as reasons his mistreatment of Wickham, Darcy discloses in confidence to Elizabeth his secret, that Wickham is a cad who seduced his sister.  Because this information would end the marriage prospects of Darcy’s sister, Elizabeth conceals this faithfully from even her family.  When Wickham later seduces Elizabeth’s sister Lydia, Darcy realizes that Elizabeth kept his confidence, and intervenes to pay Wickham off to marry Lydia.  His efforts to conceal this cover-up from Elizabeth’s family are discovered by Elizabeth, who admires Darcy’s actions and discretion.  Ultimately, their marriage (at least) can be based on a relationship of mutual affection, respect and dignity that has been made possible by mutual protection of each other’s confidences, their sharing of privacies.

1984, George Orwell (1949)


This novel painted a lasting portrait of a dystopian future where the government enforces its will through pervasive video surveillance of the population by “Big Brother.” Two-way “telescreens” can watch and listen into any gathering anywhere in Oceania. The foundation of the term “Orwellian,” 1984 continues to be a touchstone in public discourse and policy debates around surveillance, privacy, and free expression.

[Solove editorial note: If you’re interested, here’s my post with 50+ book covers for Orwell’s 1984]

War Games (1983)


This popular Hollywood film depicts a teenage hacker that accidentally accesses the supercomputer that controls America’s nuclear missiles, almost causing World War III. The first and arguably most influential depiction of hackers onscreen, one of the inspirations for the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986), and a great example of why people need to pick good passwords! (The protagonist is able to get into the supercomputer through a backdoor created by the original software developer, who used his dead son’s name as a password.)

“Cyberpunk” novels (1975-1992)

Shockwave Rider, John Brunner (1975)


Considered a key progenitor of the “cyberpunk” subgenre of the 80s, this novel depicts a lone computer hacker in a future data-driven dystopia who is continually using his computer skills to reinvent his identity and avoid capture by a corrupt government. Coined the term “computer worm”.

Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)

The most famous example of the “cyberpunk” subgenre of science fiction, this novel follows another lone computer hacker protagonist who navigates “cyberspace”, a virtual reality representation of the world’s digital networks (and a term that was coined by this novel).

Islands in the Net, Bruce Sterling (1988)

Another “cyberpunk” novel but with a non-hacker female protagonist, depicting an early 21st century dominated by digitally networked transnational corporate entities that have mostly replaced sovereign states, and introducing the concept of “data havens”, akin to tax havens, where data can be stored outside of the reach of other countries’ or corporations’ regulations.

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (1992)


Perhaps the last major work of cyberpunk fiction (and one of the few with any sense of humor), again depicting a lone hacker hero, in a near-future digital dystopia dominated by transnational corporate structures that have mostly replaced government, where much of the action takes place in a cyberspace-like virtual reality called “the Metaverse”.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) (2006)


This German drama highlights how surveillance of East Germans by agents of the Stasi. Arbitrary monitoring and political reprisal are used to tear apart the relationship of a notable playwright and actress, demonstrating the effects of surveillance both on romance and the agents doing the surveilling.

Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart (2010)


This satire depicts a declining America that has given into its worst consumerist impulses. Society spends its days shopping and “verbalizing” into äppäräti, portable devices that also broadcast consumer scores ranging from creditworthiness to relative attractiveness. Into this superficiality step a middle-aged man who wants to buy immortality and a young Korean-American woman who spends her days online chatting with friends. The book bounces between their divergent points of view while exploring their unlikely romance.

Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi (2010)


This science fiction novel is notable for its depiction of an apparent privacy utopia on Mars, where everyone is able to automatically negotiate agreements with each other over the appropriate privacy level of specific conversations and data through quantum encryption-based implants in their brains (imagine a scheme like Do Not Track or robots.txt but applied to everyone and everything). Of course, like most fictional utopias, there proves to be a dark side to this libertarian fantasy of ubiquitous technology-enabled privacy contracts.

The Circle, Dave Eggers (2013)


In the near future, a powerful technology company brings together the best of Google, Facebook, and Twitter and creates a unified online identity. With the mantra of “secrets are Lies”, “sharing is caring”, and “privacy is theft,” the Circle pursues other philanthropic efforts, like SeeChange cameras, that allow people to go “transparent” and have the public see and hear what they do at all times. Before the book’s end, the only people who have not revealed all are the company’s mythic founders.

The Private Eye, by Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente (2014-15)


This serialized graphic novel, available for free online at panelsyndicate.com, is a noir detective story set in a near future that takes place after a disaster called the Cloud Burst, when for reasons that are still unknown all of the private data stored in the cloud was dumped on to the open Internet. The post-disaster society is one where digital networks and digital media are avoided, and everyone wears an ever-changing selection of masks and costumes while in public in order to evade surveillance.

Ghost Fleet, Peter Singer and August Cole (2015)


In the near future, China’s leadership has changed – and starts to backdoor all of the technology used to build hardware around the world. This means that they have the ability to distract, disable, or destroy most of the US military – which they do. This leads the US to fight a war with very limited technology, with interesting consequences.

Wool series, Hugh Howey (2011-2013)


Wool takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth, with humanity clinging to survival in the Silo, a subterranean city extending one hundred and forty-four stories beneath the surface. The series follows the Silo as they discover that they are neither in control of their home nor alone.

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics.  This post was originally posted on his blog at LinkedIn, where Solove is a “LinkedIn Influencer.” His blog has more than 900,000 followers.

Privacy+Security ForumProfessor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz of the Privacy + Security Forum (Oct. 21-23 in Washington, DC), an annual event that aims to bridge the silos between privacy and security. 

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