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

37 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0596001056
ISBN-10: 0596001053
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Paperback, December 11, 2000
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Editorial Reviews 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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

If you have a computer with Intel's "processor serial number," own a pet with an embedded "radio frequency identification device," use ATMs and credit cards, and shop on the Internet, privacy is almost a nonexistent concept, because your every move is being tracked and stored somewhere for future use. Garfinkel, who has reported on computer privacy issues for Wired and other publications, is an exceptional writer who clearly understands his topic; here he explores today's threats to privacy and how they might be stopped. This is for all libraries.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: O'Reilly Media (January 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0596001053
  • ISBN-13: 978-0596001056
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #638,329 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on February 12, 2000
Format: Hardcover
First, of all, I should disclose what is probably a conflict of interest. Simson and I have been friends for years, and we have collaborated on a number of projects, including 3 books. As such, some people (who don't know me well) might suspect that I wouldn't provide an objective review. So, if you think that might be the case, then discount my recommendation by half -- and still buy and read this book. Simson has done an outstanding job documenting and describing a set of issues that a great many people -- myself included -- believe will influence computing, e-commerce, law and public policy in the next decade. They also impact every person in modern society.
This book describes -- well, and with numerous citations -- how our privacy as individuals and members of groups has been eroding. Unfortunately, that erosion is accelerating, and those of us involved with information technology are a significant factor in that trend. Credit bureaus accumulate information on our spending, governments record the minutiae of their citizens' lives, health insurance organizations record everything about us that might prove useful to deny our claims, and merchants suck up every bit of information they can find so as to target us for more marketing. In each case, there is a seemingly valid reason, but the accumulated weight of all this record-keeping -- especially when coupled with the sale and interchange of the data -- is frightening. Simson provides numerous examples and case studies showing how our privacy is incrementally disappearing as more data is captured in databases large and small.
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30 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Larry Lessig on January 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
What cyberspace requires is authors who are willing to interrogate "what we all know is true" to see, in fact, whether what we all know *is* true. This book has an extraordinary integrity to it, as it reopens a set of questions that most of us thought closed. You won't agree with everything, there are many questions left unresolved, but there is no doubt that in places this book will change you mind. It is the best book on privacy and the internet that I have seen.
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31 of 38 people found the following review helpful By William E. Fason on February 18, 2001
Format: Paperback
Privacy has become an apple pie issue. These days everyone is for it, and most people assume that there is a "right to privacy" articulated somewhere in the US Constitution, but there is actually little consensus in our society about what "privacy" really means, let alone "right to privacy." Alas, Garfinkel never quite puts forward a satisfying definition of privacy in Database Nation. He predicts (correctly) that the "right to privacy" will be one of the most important civil rights in the 21st Century, and (incorrectly) that "the federal government may be our best hope for privacy protection as we move into the new millennium." When examined more closely, most of the invasions of privacy he cites are actually violations of due process, negligence, inaccurate data, abuses of the nanny state, or outright fraud.
The book suffers from so many errors that space does not allow me to identify them all.
Garfinkel misstates the federal law regarding social security numbers and driver licenses. He also seems unclear on the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). According to Garfinkel, the FCRA "forbids the release of the information for noncredit or insurance purposes, such as direct marketing or 'people-finding' services." The truth is more complicated, but you wont find it in Database Nation.
Garfinkel's discussion of identity fraud is misinformed, and he passes along uncritically too much received wisdom about the issue. He seems to think that consumer credit reports contain the mother's maiden name of the consumer and that "lookup services make this information available, at minimal cost, over the Internet." Wrong on both counts.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By J. Urban on May 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The basic premise of this book is that today's database-centric technology threatens our privacy. A good topic and the book is written in a "joe public" style so you don't need to be a computer geek to follow the stories. However, many of his "solutions" to database induced problems call for more databases; usually government owned and operated - George Orwell would be proud.
For example, one case presented has to do with a couple who sold their home and moved elsewhere. The IRS's database "goofed" and started sending notices to the couple at their old address. Because the IRS mailings are stamped "Do not forward" the couple never received them and the IRS eventually put a lien on their house. The couple only found out about this after being rejected for a credit card renewal. The author writes, "A national database [containing data on every individual in the country] could have headed off the excesses of the credit reporting industry."
Isn't this what the author is arguing against?
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