Book Review: Understanding Privacy by Heather Burns

A short recap and review of a book by Heather Burns: Understanding Privacy. It's an excellent book, and you should read it.

Person taking notes on paper while sitting at a wooden table. A blurry mug and a notebook are in the background

A few years ago when I was still active in the WordPress community in various ways, I had the pleasure of listening to a talk on privacy by Heather at WordCamp Paris (I forget the year). After that I got involved with the core WordPress slack team, and inside that the privacy and translation channels. Heather was also in the privacy channel trying to shepherd the good folks of the core contribution team to align both the open source, and possible the commercial offering of WordPress to be more in line with their stated mantra of “Democratizing the Web.” She was, by far, the smartest person to have expressed an interest in contributing to the project when it comes to privacy.

My time with WordPress came to an end, and I lost touch with pretty much everyone there.

When the book came out, I was super excited for it! It took me a while to actually get around to reading it, and I wish I did it sooner. Here’s a short recap:

What’s the book on?

Privacy, in very short. The long is the cultural sources of it, why certain places lack it, why companies oppose it, how to do it well, how to absolutely screw it up.

What you, as a professional (in the sense that you get to paid for writing code) can do, should do when it comes to privacy. Why it matters, and what the impact of our individual choices are.

What are the legal and contractual frameworks, or lack of frameworks around privacy, and what does privacy even mean?

Where we should go and read more about it.

What steps do we need to take, what are all the different non-code questions we need to ask, and get answers to, before we continue with our work.

Personally if I’m ever in a position of people management, every new hire will get a copy of this book and they will need to read it. It is important, it is foundational, and I sincerely believe that without actually understanding privacy, pun not intended, we shouldn’t build things that impact the lives of other people in any way, regardless of jurisdiction.

Why should I listen to Heather?

She’s been doing this (dissecting policy, dealing with privacy) for far longer than you’ve been writing code. The UK government listens to her. You probably should too.

Should I read it?


Should I get my team to read it?


Should I get my manager to read it?

Yes, please!

Where do I get the book?

At Smashing Magazine:

There’s another book by the same title written by Daniel J. Solove. I do not know what that book is about, but this is not that one.

Anything else I should know?

Yep. The book uses a bunch of short links hosted by Smashing Magazine itself. They all start with, and redirect to wherever they need to go. The upside is that they are more memorable. The downside is that I have no idea where the links would take me, or what sort of metrics SM has about folks using the short links.

So I created a Github repository with all of the links in the book listed and expanded, so you can use it as a companion if you don’t want to trust the short links. Find it here:

Anyways, go read the book. Yesterday. You need it, I need it, your users need you to read it.

Photo by Unseen Studio on Unsplash