Update 2/25/2007: Added link to Amazon.

Database Nation, by Simson Garfinkel, is a fantastic book. I admit that I’m a fan of what I like to call ‘Chicken Little’ books (I like William Greider and I even remember thinking that Revelations was the best book in the Bible as a child). My friends tell me that one of my typical greetings is ‘Have you read XXX? You should!’ I like books that challenge me and confront me with realities that I haven’t considered before.

Database Nation definitely challenges. The author approaches the burgeoning issue of personal privacy, and the coming lack thereof, in several different ways. Whether it is biometric identification, the possibility of protecting privacy via property rights, or a chapter of possible solutions, he treats the topic in a manner befitting its fundamental nature. I found his historical emphasis, where he compares the current situation to the one created in the early 1950s by the newly forming credit reporting agencies, to be especially useful. There’s nothing new under the sun, as they say. And the problems we’ve faced with privacy before have dealt with. The sky has fallen before, but it’s possible to pin it back up.

Privacy has been on my mind for a while now. I work in technology, and one of the things that is allowing this current invasion of privacy is the ability to collect, store and mine vast amounts of information. As an example of just how far it has gone, I can access 12 million business records (and 120 million US households) via my library’s
website–they’ve bought access to a database called referenceUSA. Search on business size, focus, years advertising in the Yellow Pages, location, etc. Slice and dice as you wish. As part of the usage agreement, you can’t use the database for unsolicited commercial mail, but, having found the names in Reference USA, you could look up the business in the Yellow Pageseasily enough.

While such data aggregation has been possible for years and years (ask the insurance companies), computing power and disk space have become so cheap that it’s much less work than it used to be–and collecting such information is only getting easier. See Cringely’s column for a suggested solution. I’m not sure how I feel about it, but it’s one idea for keeping the sky from falling.

I watched Enemy of the State again recently. While I enjoyed watching Will Smith and Gene Hackman avoided the satellite images and bugs of the NSA, I have no idea how much the movie made up and how much it nailed on the head (the Economist had this to say about satellite imagery in 2000). Still, this movie displays in a fundamental way what loss of privacy can mean. When folks say ‘hey, I don’t have anything to hide’ I don’t think they realize just what it means to have no privacy. There are shades and shades of ‘hiding’; there are things that I would tell my parents that I wouldn’t tell an acquaintance. Likewise, there are items I’d tell a new friend that I would rather not be published in
the daily paper. Discretion is something that all humans need–you do have things to hide since no one is perfect at all times! Having something to hide doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing something illegal–perhaps it’s just embarrassing (or would be if exposed to certain people).

Another aspect is the federal ‘do not call’ list and all the hullabaloo surrounding it. Telemarketers feel they aren’t going to be able to survive–everyone else feels they don’t want to be called unless they opt in. Even Dave Barry has chimed
in
. This is an issue that resonates with everyone and calls into dramatic perspective the tension between making your contact information publicly available and wanting to control what someone else does with that information. Imagine what it would be like if everything were public?

Expectation of reasonable privacy is something fundamental. I’d hate to lose it.

Link to “Database Nation” on Amazon.


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