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Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century
by Simson Garfinkel
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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
Rather than see these beguiling innovations as a positive development, veteran tech writer Simson Garfinkel sees them as enablers of a technological future in which our personal preferences and private lives are thrown open for all to see and cash in on. In his new book, Database Nation, he launches into a meticulous examination of the seemingly endless ways in which our privacy is under attack.
This isn't simply another cautionary tale about the Internet. Garfinkel has the historical vision and storytelling chops, both sorely lacking among today's tech and business press, to stitch together an exhaustive range of topics - medical records, biological warfare, United Parcel Service's package tracking system, even satellite pictures of Earth - into a panoply of privacy concerns. The Internet is just the tip of a very frightening iceberg.
Garfinkel is both a skeptic and an enthusiast of new technology: For five years, he relied on a voice-recognition system to guard his house rather than a lock and key. And with the exception of a gloomy prediction for a future filled with nuclear or biochemical terrorism, Database Nation is mostly an earnest call to arms (he even ends with a "Privacy Now" manifesto).
Indeed, the book devotes much of the last 100 pages to the growing threat of terrorism and the "democratization" of deadly weapons. It's the "irrational terrorist," the loner who cares little about the repercussions of his actions, who scares Garfinkel and forces him to side, to some extent, with government. In the process, though, he relegates skeptics of the government's good intentions to a few meager quotes.
Unlike many in the tech industry, Garfinkel welcomes legislation to rein in private industry. He draws on the early history of the information-collection business to make his point: "Left to its own devices, private industry created a system in the 1960s that was tremendously unfair to private citizens. Yes, there was a free information market, but it was a market in which only businesses could participate."
He's no Pollyanna about government abuse either, citing a litany of cases including the World War II internment of Japanese Americans and the excesses of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Nevertheless, it isn't a centralized government database Garfinkel fears - it's the unchecked, unregulated power of marketers.
For those who claim that improved technology will allow advertisers to target consumers with personal, customized offers, Garfinkel foresees a future snag: A man decides to take his mistress to New York for Valentine's Day. His airline and hotel reservations trigger a flood of "personalized" ads once he's back home that hawk special offers from every romantic eatery and jewelry store in Manhattan.
It's not only spam that worries Garfinkel. It's the power that businesses wield with personal information. Take the case of a Los Angeles man who injured his leg in a supermarket; when he sued, the market used records of his alcohol purchases to malign his character. Our "data shadows" - a term coined by Columbia professor Alan Westin - "force us to live up to a new standard of accountability," Garfinkel writes. "And because the information that makes up these shadows is occasionally incorrect, they leave us all vulnerable to punishment or retaliation for action that we did not even commit."
Sure, such inaccuracies are not the norm. But even in the best-case scenarios offered by information gatherers, any margin of error can ruin hundreds of lives. The Medical Information Bureau, the insurance industry's private clearinghouse of medical data, boasts a 97 percent accuracy rate. Unfortunately, that leaves hundreds of people with inaccuracies that could determine the price of their insurance - or whether they get insurance at all.
For all but the most studied privacy expert, Database Nation will provide not only valuable history and insight, but a rousing call to arms. For marketers on the Net, Garfinkel's book shows what they're likely to be up against from newly awakened customers.
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