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Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century Paperback – 14 Dec 2000

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Product details

  • Paperback: 338 pages
  • Publisher: O'Reilly Media; 1 edition (14 Dec. 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0596001053
  • ISBN-13: 978-0596001056
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.4 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 623,463 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

Forget the common cold. Instead, consider the rise of "false data syndrome", a deceptive method of identification that's derived from numbers rather than more recognisable human traits. Simson Garfinkel couples this idea with concepts like "data shadow" and "data sphere" to paint a decidedly unappealing scenario in which advanced technology has overriden privacy protection in Database Nation.

Garfinkel argues that "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). His book, which is thoroughly researched and contains example-rich text--if American-focused--explores the history of identification procedures; the computerisation of ID systems; how and where data is collected, tracked and stored; and the laws which protect privacy. Garfinkel also explains who owns, manipulates, ensures the safety and manages the vast amounts of data (videotapes, photographs, identification numbers, medical records, etc) that make up our collective human infrastructure. The big surprise here is that it isn't governments that manage the majority of this data, it's faceless corporations that trade your purchasing habits, identification numbers and other personal information just like any hot commodity.

Quoting many horrific examples, Garfinkel explores the wide spectrum of data thievery and the future implications of larger, longer-lasting databases. "Citizens", Garfinkel theorises, "don't know how to fight back even though we know our privacy is at risk." For example, a small paragraph on a US insurance claim-form grants "blanket authorization" of all personal records (medical, scholastic etc.) to an insurance company--or else the patient may be denied reimbursement for medical treatment. "We do not have the choice [as consumers] either to negotiate or to strike our own deal", writes Garfinkel.

We can, however, build a world in which sensitive data is respected and kept private--and Garfinkel offers solutions for doing just that. He suggests that citizens, government and corporations co-operate to develop weaker ID systems and legislate heavier penalties for identification theft. But while Garfinkel's argument is thought-provoking, his paranoia-laden prose and Orwellian imagination tend to obscure the safeguards he recommends. Strangely, for all his talk about protecting your privacy, he fails to provide a list of available resources for removing your personal information from direct mail and telemarketing groups. While he would like Database Nation to be as highly regarded (and timely) as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, some may question whether the stakes in the privacy debate are really so high. --E. Brooke Gilbert, --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"This book shocked, disturbed, and frightened me. My eyes were forced wide open and I was made to see the reality of our current lack of privacy..." -- Raven, ravenmatrix website, June 2002

This book qualifies as a must read for all parents and young adults, in fact anyone with a stake in the future direction of our society. -- Robin Abbi, Wycombe Star, March 28, 2002

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Alistair Kelman on 4 Jan. 2000
Format: Hardcover
Thirty five years ago Professor Alan Westin of Columbia University, New York, coined the term "data shadow" for the concept that combining different types of records (toll records, credit records, bank records, health records etc) could elicit additional information, a data shadow, which could track the life of an individual. The shadow could show "when the individual entered the highway and where he got off, how many bottles of Scotch or Vermouth he purchased from the liquor store; who paid the rent for the girl in Apartment 4B; who went to the movies between two and four p.m. on a working day at the office; who was at lunch at Luigi's or the Four Seasons on Tuesday September 15th..." (see "Privacy and Freedom" by Alan Westin 1967)
In revisiting this sphere in, what will undoubtedly be a key book of the first decade of the new century, Simpson Garfinkel has one key advantage over lawyers like Professor Alan Westin - Simpson Garfinkel is a journalist. And because his professional skill is with words he is able to paint a picture of the very real threat that "data shadows" pose to us in society far better than lawyers whose real skill is in teaching or in the courtroom. In a gripping and thought provoking three hundred pages Garfinkel shows the threat to freedom which are becoming manifest in our Internet enabled world through the variety and volume of databases which are being created beyond the control of the shadowed citizen.
But the tone of this book is not hysterical - it is factual. As example is laid upon example the direction humanity is taking is clearly laid out with a solution which is likely to be unpopular in the United States - government regulation.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 18 May 2004
Format: Hardcover
Mr. Garfinkel shares a bad dream with us of how unpleasant our lives could be made by unlimited assaults on our privacy.
-- Instead of just getting telemarketing calls at dinner time, marketers send thousands of e-mails to follow up on every transaction you make (15,000 restaurants send you an e-mail coupon when they learn you are coming to New York on your honeymoon).
-- Someone steals your identity by lifting a credit card application from your junk mail, spends $150,000 in your name, and ruins your credit record for 7 years so you cannot get a mortgage or another credit card (after yours are cancelled)-- because the credit bureaus cannot clean this information out of their systems.
-- You get locked in a "smart" elevator that has stopped functioning because it has recognized your fellow passenger as a criminal. You suffer from a psychotic assault by the criminal, as a result, who holds you hostage in the disabled elevator.
-- Telemarketers get through your caller ID screen by using software to pretend to call from your relatives' telephone numbers.
-- Your computer at work monitors your output, and sends you messages about needing to do more work.
George Orwell feared the government as "Big Brother" in "1984." Mr. Garfinkel says that we have Big Brother under control, but profit-making enterprises are going to get us instead. We are at risk from the universal use of the Social Security Number, "body identifying equipment" like fingerprint and voice print detectors, and massive data bases that are unwieldy.
When focused on describing the parts of the threat that have not yet manifested themselves, Mr. Garfinkel is brilliant and effective. When focusing on the solutions, he is less so.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 17 Feb. 2000
Format: Hardcover
Subtitled, the death of privacy in the 21st century, Simson Garfinkel charts a topical course through computerised personal information. Consider what might happen if you were to be able to link computer-held information about yourself. Scared? Think of everything held by distinct parties. Now join it all together. Everything from your electoral information, your tax records, your credit card bill, your mobile telephone calls, your web browser's history file, your supermarket loyalty card, your car's satnav. Now factor in face recognition from CCTV, cookies left behind from web sites, the boxes you tick when you sign an application form ...
Now think that all this could be drawn together. Now automate it so that a computer, not a person, makes decision on your life based on these related clues. Scary, huh?

And boy does he cover some ground - from medical records, web logs, satelite imagery, encryption products, mail redirection - we get the full gamut. His central tenet is clear - just what does personal information mean? What rights to you have over information about yourself? Your name, your date of birth, your income, your shoe size, your magazine subscriptions, your web life. All disparate facts, but when combined, a powerful profile and useful to many people. From an insurer worrying about you as a policy, to a prospective employer who's interested in seeing what you've said on the net, to the local council who noticed you've built a new outhouse on your land ... the truth is out there, but can you connect it up?

The body is yours, but what's right do you have to your identity?
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 37 reviews
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Understanding one of the defining issues in computing 12 Feb. 2000
By Amazon Customer - Published on
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.
The book includes chapters on a wide range of privacy-related issues, including medical information privacy, purchasing patterns and affinity programs, on-line monitoring, credit bureaus, genetic testing, government record-keeping and regulation, terrorism and law enforcement monitoring, biometrics and identification, ownership of personal information, and AI-based information modeling and collection. The 270 pages of text present a sweeping view of the various assaults on our privacy in day-to-day life. Each instance is documented as a case where someone has a reasonable cause to collect and use the information, whether for law enforcement, medical research, or government cost-saving. Unfortunately, the reality is that most of those scenarios are then extended to where the information is misused, misapplied, or combined with other information to create unexpected and unwanted intrusions.
Despite my overall enthusiasm, I was a little disappointed in a few minor respects with the book. Although Simson concludes the book with an interesting agenda of issues that should be pursued in the interests of privacy protection, he misses a number of opportunities to provide the reader with information on how to better his or her own control over personal information. For instance, he describes the opt-out program for direct marketing, but doesn't provide the details of how the reader can do this; Simson recounts that people are able to get their credit records or medical records from MIB, but then doesn't provide any information on how to get them or who to contact; and although he sets forth a legislative agenda for government, he fails to note realistic steps that the reader can take to help move that agenda forward. I suspect that many people will finish reading this book with a strong sense of wanting to *do* something, but they will not have any guidance as to where to go or who to talk with.
The book has over 20 pages of comprehensive endnotes and WWW references for the reader interested in further details. These URLs do include pointers to many important sources of information on privacy and law, but with a few puzzling omissions: I didn't see references to resources such as EPIC or Lauren Weinstein's Privacy digest outside of the fine print in the endnotes. I also didn't note references to ACM's Computers, Freedom and Privacy conferences, the USACM, or a number of other useful venues and supporters of privacy and advocacy. Robert Ellis Smith's "Privacy Journal" is mentioned in the text, but there is no information given as to how to subscribe it it. And so on.
I also noted that the book doesn't really discuss much of the international privacy scene, including issues of law and culture that complicate our domestic solutions. However, the book is intended for a U.S. audience, so this is somewhat understandable. A few other topics -- such as workplace monitoring -- are similarly given more abbreviated coverage than every reader might wish. Overall, I recognized few of those.
On the plus side, the book is very readable, with great examples and anecdotes, and a clear sense of urgency. Although it is obvious that Simson is not an impartial party on these topics, he does present many of the conflicting viewpoints to illustrate the complexity of the issues. For instance, he presents data on the need for wiretaps and criminal investigation, along with accounts and descriptions of bioterrorism, including interviews with FBI officials, to illustrate why there are people of good faith who want to be able to monitor telephone conversations and email. If anything, this increases the impact of the book -- it is not an account of bad people with evil intent, but a description of what happens when ideas reasonable to a small group have consequences beyond their imagining -- or immediate concern. The death of privacy is one of a thousand cuts, each one small and seemingly made for a good reason.
Simson has committed to adding important information to the WWW site for the book (<[...] Many (or most) of the items I have noted above will likely be addressed at the WWW site before long. Simson also has informed me that the publisher will be making corrections and some additions to future editions of the book if he deems them important. This is great news for those of us who will use the book as an classroom text, or if we recommend the book to policy makers on an on-going basis. Those of us with older copies will need to keep the URL on our bookmark list.
Overall, I was very pleased with the book. I read it all in one sitting, on a flight cross-country, and found it an easy read. I have long been interested in (and involved in) activities in protection of privacy, so I have seen and read most of the sources Simson references. Still, I learned a number of things from reading the book that I didn't already know -- Simson has done a fine job of presenting historical and ancillary context to his narrative without appearing overly pedantic.
This is a book I intend to recommend to all of my graduate students and colleagues. I only wish there was some way to get all of our elected officials to read it, too. I believe that everyone who values some sense of private life should be aware of these issues, and this book is a great way to learn about them. I suggest you go out and buy a copy -- but pay in cash instead of with a credit card, take mass transit to the store instead of your personal auto, and don't look directly into the video cameras behind the checkout counter. Once you read the book, you'll be glad you did.
30 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Integrity 25 Jan. 2000
By Larry Lessig - Published on
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.
31 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Factual errors undercut Garfinkel's arguments 18 Feb. 2001
By William E. Fason - Published on
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. Forgive me, but at this point in the book I started wondering whether Garfinkel had ever even seen a credit report. As a licensed private investigator and professional debt collector, I deal with credit reports, look-up services, data protection laws and privacy issues every day, and am able to compare Garfinkel's claims with my own first-hand knowledge. Garfinkel has too much of a graduate-seminar approach to these issues. He needs to get out more.
I admit I have philosophical differences with Garfinkel's framework of reference. The greatest threats to privacy come from government, not business, as government has unique powers to coerce information from its citizens which no private entity has. Garfinkel sees government regulation of the private sector as the solution to privacy concerns. I see it as the problem.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Good Premise, Contradictory Solutions 3 May 2000
By J. Urban - Published on
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?
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
A must read for every American 27 Feb. 2000
By Glenn Fleishman - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Why every American? Because, as Garfinkel points, out Europeans are better protected than we are. In every way, on virtually every page of the book, Garfinkel shows not only how our private information is being used without our knowledge, consent, or ability to correct it, but how it is being associated. In fact, I would argue that his collection of details of how the smallest pieces of your personal, financial, medical, and employment history can be connected easily by businesses to deny you credit, a job, or insurance makes the strongest case for regulation.
The kind of regulation Garfinkel argues is necessary - and which mirrors existing laws in the EU that American companies flaunt over the Web in their dealings with EU citizens - would provide the right kinds of control and redress for citizens without requiring government involvement and ownership of data.
(One of the odd recurring points in the book is that Garfinkel views it as a missed opportunity that a monolithic data center wasn't built in the 60s to collate all individual information. I see his point, but imagine if Nixon had that resource at his disposal? Even without it, he had people's tax returns pulled. I may, perhaps, misunderstand Garfinkel's message there, as he felt a central storage point would have provided a nationwide opt-out control for individuals and the use of their data by any company.)
It's fascinating reading and a relatively quick read for a nonfiction title. As I read it, I had prickles at the back of my neck as I discovered how my own information is being used without my knowledge. (Ever heard of the MIB? Not Men In Black - read the's almost as insidious.)
Database Nation paints a picture of the dangers of leaving our lives in data in the hands of business instead of our own hands. Hopefully, technology and policy will meet politics for a solution described in his book providing the kind of ownership and rights we need.
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