Data privacy & cybesecurity for normal people

Book Review: Stuff They Don't Want You To Know by Ben Bowlin, Matt Frederick, & Noel Brown

About the Author & the Book

Ben Bowlin, Matt Frederick, and Noel Brown cohost one of my personal favorite podcasts, Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know, which is about taking a fact-based approach to conspiracy theories ranging from Bigfoot and haunted houses to political coverups and mysterious deaths. It’s a podcast I’ve come to rely on – not as truth and gospel, but rather as a critical-thinking-based approach to learning about various goings-on (both recent and historical) and getting an additional educated opinion on the matter. I highly recommend it if you’re a podcast person.

The book was published late last year, and being a fan I was quick to preorder it to support the work. What was contained within was 9 chapters spanning over 200 pages covering everything from the history of biological warfare and human experimentation in the US to mass surveillance and propaganda and more.


The Good

This is probably the point where you’re thinking “am I reading the right blog? Why is The New Oil – a site about data privacy and cybersecurity for the masses – writing a review on a book about conspiracy theories?” That’s because anybody who’s spent time in the privacy space knows that conspiracy theories abound. Some of them are pretty absurd and may result from ignorance or lack of technical knowledge. Others have been conclusively disproven but still abound. And others turn out to be true in the long run. It can be hard sometimes to keep up: knowing which claims were debunked, which ones don’t make sense, and which ones might be true but aren’t proven.

That’s where a book like this comes in. While the book largely focuses on the stories behind these conspiracy theories, it also touches on the thought processes behind conspiracy theories. At the beginning of the book, the authors note that nearly all conspiracy theories have – if you parse deep enough through the various onion-like layers – a small grain grain of truth at their core, like the grain of sand that a pearl is built around. They explore how this small kernel of truth can grow and warp into outright ridiculous, repeatedly disproven belief systems and how you can defend yourself against these with critical thinking, knowing how to fact check the right way, and a healthy degree of skepticism (in the sense of “not believing something just cause it sounds good,” not the sense of “dismissing it outright no matter what”). These are skills that society in general desperately needs these days, but some areas more than others. Privacy is one such area.

Particularly, I want to shine a light on Chapter Three: Surveillance. In past episodes of the podcast, the hosts have often unfortunately come off as dismissive of (though not necessarily condescending of or against) the notion of privacy. At least one host has made jokes about believing that privacy is dead or impossible to achieve and expressed a defeatist mentality, while another host is often the butt of jokes for being a very private, off-the-grid person. I was pleasantly surprised to see the exact opposite of this expressed in the book. In Chapter Three, while exploring the history and facts (and of course, conspiracy theories) surrounding mass surveillance, the hosts/authors at one point take a flat-out, anti-surveillance stance. They state in no uncertain terms that privacy is a human right, that everyone is owed privacy, that mass surveillance is wrong, and that there is no need to defend this position with any facts or figures beyond that. You are owed privacy simply because you are. While some may view that as a logical fallacy, I was refreshed to see them take that stance. Too often people who write about privacy try to defend it in practical terms – how it can protect you from stalkers, tyrannical governments, or influence (which are all valid reasons that should be discussed, for the record) – but it was surprisingly refreshing to hear someone fall back on the “human right” argument instead of trying to take a view that often comes off as “meeting in the middle.”

The Bad

The biggest drawback to this book, particularly for the purposes of this discussion, would have to be the over-reliance on history and lack of discussion on philosophy and psychology. Off the top off my head (and acknowledging that it’s been nearly two months since I last read the book) I would say that the book is probably 80-85% history and 10-15% discussion of the psychology behind conspiratorial thinking. While that certainly makes for a fun and eye-opening read, it also reduces the impact of the message: conspiracies are real, but we have to be careful not to see them behind every corner. The authors have stated that massive portions of the first draft were cut or trimmed down and in the future they hope to release a sequel focusing on more fringe topics like UFOs, cryptids, and more. I hope that book will also contain some of the more philosophical content that was also likely cut from this book. While I am always interested to learn more about how we got here, I would also be interested to learn much more about how to recognize a biased source, how to accurately and properly do my research, and how to defend myself against the inevitable upcoming onslaught of more fake news, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. Still, that’s not to say that the book is completely without merit. It still has plenty to offer and acts a great starting point to how we got here as a society.

Final Verdict

Like I said, this book is a bit further outside the topic of privacy than I usually discuss. While I’m not against sharing books that are tangentially related, this one is more of a stretch than usual. That said, I think it’s very much worth a read. The authors explicitly advise against dismissing conspiracy theories outright, instead focusing on that aforementioned grain of truth and seeking to understand how it grew from there. Such a skill can be invaluable these days for those of us who seek to understand and grow, especially in a space as rife as this with sensationalism, misinformation, and paranoia. For those looking to better sharpen those skills, I think this book presents a great – and entertaining – starting point that will reap exponential rewards as we navigate both the privacy and tech spaces and larger society as a whole.

You can learn more about Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know by Ben Bowlin, Matt Frederick, & Noel Brown here.

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