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‘Privacy is not dead, but it is under threat,’ says Wash U’s Neil Richards

Law professor Neil Richards probes the arguments around information privacy in his new book, "Why Privacy Matters."
Courtesy of Neil Richards
Law professor Neil Richards probes the arguments around information privacy in his new book, "Why Privacy Matters."

Neil Richards begins his new book with a statement that, these days, passes for conventional wisdom: “Privacy is dead.”

“It’s something I hear a lot,” writes the St. Louis-based law professor in his new book, “Why Privacy Matters.” “In fact, it’s part of a conversation I’ve had so many times that I’ve started calling it just ‘the Privacy Conversation.’ I’ve had the Privacy Conversation with my colleagues and students, with taxi drivers and waiters, with barbers and bartenders. I’ve had it with family and friends, and I’ve had it with people I’ve met in line at airports and baseball stadiums while we waited to go through privacy-invasive metal detectors.”

And yet Richards is convinced the conventional wisdom is wrong. “Privacy is not dead, but it is under threat,” he explained on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

“This myth that privacy is dead, incidentally, is a conversation Americans have been having since the late 19th century. If privacy is dying, it's dying one of those long drawn-out deaths like the last scene in ‘Macbeth’ or when Bugs Bunny gets stabbed and sort of prances around for 90 seconds before he finally collapses. It's that kind of a death.”

Richards is the Koch Distinguished Professor in Law at Washington University and co-director of the Cordell Institute for Policy in Medicine & Law. In his new book, he argues that it’s the very entities that profit from our personal information that want to convince us that the fight is over. He wants us to resist.

Neil Richards joins St. Louis on the Air

“If we believe the myth of privacy is dead, we're not going to be able to fight for this better society that we can achieve,” he said.

Richards does not believe the key to doing that is in the complicated opt-out forms now offered by tech companies, things we mindlessly click and then feel vaguely bad about. Instead, it lies in meaningful regulation. He sees the European Union doing important work on this front — and he remains hopeful that the U.S. can follow suit.

“If American companies want to be competitive in Europe and want to do business in Europe, they have to comply with European rules,” he noted. Privacy won’t be dead if there’s more profit to be found in keeping it alive.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.