Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century

Simson Garfinkel

Published by O'Reilly Media, 2000
ISBN 10: 1565926536 / ISBN 13: 9781565926530
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As the 21st century dawns, advances in technology endanger our privacy in ways never before imagined. Direct marketers and retailers track our every purchase; surveillance cameras observe our movements; mobile phones will soon report our location to those who want to track us; government eavesdroppers listen in on private communications; misused medical records turn our bodies and our histories against us; and linked databases assemble detailed consumer profiles used to predict and influence our behavior. Privacy -- the most basic of our civil rights -- is in grave peril.Simson Garfinkel -- journalist, entrepreneur, and international authority on computer security -- has spent his career testing new technologies and warning about their implications. Database Nation is his compelling account of how invasive technologies will affect our lives in the coming years. It's a timely, far-reaching, entertaining, and thought-provoking look at the serious threats to privacy facing us today. The book poses a disturbing question: how can we protect our basic rights to privacy, identity, and autonomy when technology is making invasion and control easier than ever before?Garfinkel's captivating blend of journalism, storytelling, and futurism is a call to arms. It will frighten, entertain, and ultimately convince us that we must take action now to protect our privacy and identity before it's too late.Background:Fifty years ago, in 1984, George Orwell imagined a future in which privacy was demolished by a totalitarian state that used spies, video surveillance, historical revisionism, and control over the media to maintain its power. Those who worry about personal privacy and identity--especially in this day of technologies that encroach upon these rights-- still use Orwell's "Big Brother" language to discuss privacy issues. But the reality is that the age of a monolithic Big Brother is over. And yet the threats are perhaps even more likely to destroy the rights we've assumed were ours.Today's threats to privacy are more widely distributed than they were in Orwell's state, and they represent both public and private interests. Over the next fifty years, we'll see new kinds of threats to privacy that don't find their roots in totalitarianism but in capitalism, the free market, advances in technology, and the unbridled exchange of electronic information.Today's Threats to PrivacyThe End of Due Process. Governments and businesses went on a computer-buying spree in the second half of the 20th century, replacing billions of paper files with electronic data-processing systems. But the new computers lacked some very important qualities of the manual systems that they replaced: flexibility, compassion, and understanding. Today, humans often are completely absent from digital decision-making. As a result, we've created a world in which the smallest clerical errors can have devastating effects on a person's life. It's a world where comput- ers are assumed to be correct, and people wrong.

  • The Fallibility of Biometrics. Fingerprints, iris scans, and genetic sequences are widely regarded as infallible techniques for identifying human beings. They are so good, in fact, that fifty years from now identification cards and passports will probably not exist. Instead, a global data network will allow anyone on the planet to be instantly identified from the unique markings of their own body. Will it be impossible for people to conceal their identity from the federal government, and if so, is that a good thing? What about concealing your identity from the local drug store? And who controls the databank, anyway? Would they ever need to create "false" identities?
  • The Systematic Capture of Everyday Events. We are entering a new world in which every purchase we make, every place we travel, every word we say, and everything we read is routinely recorded and made available for later analysis. But while the technology exists to capture this data, we lack the wisdom to figure out how to treat it fairly and justly. Nevertheless, more and more raw data of every kind is being recorded every day, largely out of fear that if the information is thrown away, it might be needed at some point in the future. The result is an unprecedented amount of data surveillance, the effect of which we have just begun to grasp.
  • The Bugging of the Outside World. Orwell thought that the ultimate threat to privacy would be the bugging of bedrooms and offices. Today, it's clear that an equally large threat to freedom is the systematic monitoring of public places. Right or wrong, we have come to expect privacy in public. Microphones, video cameras, and other remote sensing devices, combined with information processing technology, are taking that privacy away.
  • The Misuse of Medical Records and the Perversion of Insurance. Traditionally, medical records have been society's most tightly-held personal records. The obligation to maintain patient confidentiality is widely regarded as one of the most basic responsibilities of medical professionals. But patient confidentiality is expensive and inefficient--two factors at odds with healthcare reform. Meanwhile, the core assumptions of healthcare insurance--pooled risk and shared costs--are under attack by companies who wish to insure only the healthy.
  • Runaway Marketing. Junk mail, junk faxes, junk e-mail, and telemarketing calls during dinner are just the beginning of the 21st century's runaway marketing campaigns. Marketers increasingly will use personal information to create solicitations that are continual and virtually indistinguishable from news articles, personal letters, and other kinds of non-commercial communications. Where will we as a society draw the line between the right to free speech and the right to be free from intrusion? Will we ever be able to regulate marketers' attempts to convince people to do things that they wouldn't otherwise wish to do? Should we?
  • The Commodification of Personal Information. Personally-identified information--your name, your profession, your hobbies, and the other bits that make up your self--is being turned into a valuable property right. But instead of being given to individuals to help them exert control over their lives, the property right is being seized by big business to ensure continued profits and market share.
  • Genetic Autonomy. Breakthrough advances in genetics make it possible to predict disease, behavior, intelligence, and many other human traits--but all with differing levels of accuracy. Whether or not this information is correct, it will change how people are perceived and treated. Will it be possible to treat people fairly and equally if there is irrefutable scientific evidence that people are different, with different strengths, different weaknesses, and different susceptibilities to disease? How can genetic information remain confidential when it is shared within families and ethnic groups? How can our own genetic makeup be kept secret when we are constantly shedding DNA from our bodies into the environment?
  • Micromanagement of Intellectual Property. To boost their profits ever higher, businesses are becoming increasingly vigilant in detecting misuse of their own intellectual property. But piracy is hard to prevent when modern technology can turn every consumer into an electronic publisher. To prevent info-theft, publishers are turning to increasingly intrusive techniques for spying on their customers. What can we do, as both producers and consumers of intellectual property, to make sure that everyone gets their fair share and a fair shake?
  • The Individual as Terrorist. Astonishingly lethal technologies are now widely available throughout society, and people who resort to violence are more likely than ever before to use these technologies. How can society reasonably protect itself from random acts of terrorism without putting every single person under surveillance? How can society protect itself from systematic abuses by law enforcement officials, even when those abuses seem to be in the public interest?
  • Intelligent Computing. The utmost threat to privacy will be intelligent computers--machines that can use human-like reasoning powers, combined with blinding calculating speed, to assemble coherent data portraits, to interpret and anticipate our mental states, and to betray us with false relationships. These awesome machines of the not-too-distant future will ultimately change of the rules on which our society is built.
Why This Book?This book is more than simply a journalistic summary of the current state of privacy rights and violations. It is a call to arms. Forty years ago, unbridled technology attacked our environment--and few people seemed to know or care. With the publication of "Silent Spring" in 1962, Rachel Carson opened our eyes. Her graphic depiction of the ecological and health ravages brought by technology made many people realize the risks as never before. Today, our environment still imperils us, but things are better than they might have been, and we have a population that's informed and, in many cases, activist.This book pleads the case for privacy in the same way. There is much that can be done with, not in spite of, technology. An aware public is the first step. It is our hope that this book will open the public's eyes to the many intrusions on our privacy before it is too late.

Review: Forget the common cold for a moment. Instead, consider the rise of "false data syndrome," a deceptive method of identification derived from numbers rather than more recognizable human traits. Simson Garfinkel couples this idea with concepts like "data shadow" and "datasphere" in Database Nation, offering a decidedly unappealing scenario of how we have overlooked privacy with the advent of advanced technology.

According to Garfinkel, "technology is not privacy neutral." It leaves us with only two choices: 1) allow our personal data to rest in the public domain or 2) become hermits (no credit cards, no midnight video jaunts--you get the point).

Garfinkel's thoroughly researched and example-rich text explores the history of identification procedures; the computerization of ID systems; how and where data is collected, tracked, and stored; and the laws that protect privacy. He also explains who owns, manipulates, ensures the safety of, and manages the vast amount of data that makes up our collective human infrastructure. The big surprise here? It's not the United States government who controls or manages the majority of this data but rather faceless corporations who trade your purchasing habits, social security numbers, and other personal information just like any other hot commodity.

There's a heck of a lot of data to digest about data here and only a smidgen of humor to counterbalance the weight of Garfinkel's projections. But then again, humor isn't really appropriate in connection with stolen identities; medical, bank, and insurance record exploitation; or the potential for a future that's a "video surveillance free-for-all."

In many information-horrific situations, Garfinkel explores the wide variety of data thievery and the future implications of larger, longer-lasting databases. "Citizens," Garfinkel theorizes, "don't know how to fight back even though we know our privacy is at risk." In a case study involving an insurance claim form, he explains how a short paragraph can grant "blanket authorization" to all personal (not just medical) records to an insurance company. Citizens who refuse to sign the consent paragraph typically must forfeit any reimbursement for medical services. Ultimately, "we do not have the choice [as consumers] either to negotiate or to strike our own deal."

The choice that we do have, however, is to build a world in which sensitive data is respected and kept private--and the book offers clever, "turn-the-tables" solutions, suggesting that citizens, government, and corporations cooperate to develop weaker ID systems and legislate heavier penalties for identification theft.

Garfinkel's argument does give one pause, but his paranoia-laden prose and Orwellian imagination tends to obscure the effectiveness of his argument. Strangely, for all his talk about protecting your privacy, he never mentions how to remove your personal information from direct mail and telemarketing groups. And while he would like for Database Nation to be as highly regarded (and timely) as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the fact remains that we're not going to perish from having our privacy violated. --E. Brooke Gilbert

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Title: Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the...
Publisher: O'Reilly Media
Publication Date: 2000
Book Condition: Very Good

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