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

Simson Garfinkel
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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

About the Author

Simson Garfinkel, CISSP, is a journalist, entrepreneur, and international authority on computer security. Garfinkel is chief technology officer at Sandstorm Enterprises, a Boston-based firm that develops state-of-the-art computer security tools. Garfinkel is also a columnist for Technology Review Magazine and has written for more than 50 publications, including Computerworld, Forbes, and The New York Times. He is also the author of Database Nation; Web Security, Privacy, and Commerce; PGP: Pretty Good Privacy; and seven other books. Garfinkel earned a master's degree in journalism at Columbia University in 1988 and holds three undergraduate degrees from MIT. He is currently working on his doctorate at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 3 - Absolute Identification

Confronted with database discrepancies, identity theft, illegal immigration, and unsolved crimes, many policymakers have put their faith in the technological promise of biometric identification. These technologies, their boosters say, will ultimately usher in a regime of absolute identification in which each individual can be precisely known by the unique characteristics of that person's body.

Absolute identification is a policy goal that is within our grasp. Indeed, a growing number of scientists, engineers, and politicians now see identification of human bodies not as a technical problem, but rather as a political one. If society has the will, they argue, we could uniquely register every person in the United States, Europe, Asia, and possibly the entire planet. We could then routinely identify individuals at banks, at school, at work, and on the road. Absolute identification could eliminate mismatched computer records, stolen identities, and the ambiguity that comes with the messiness of day-to-day life. By replacing anonymity with absolute identity, we would create a society in which each person could be absolutely granted the privileges that come with his or her station in life, and each person could be held uniquely and absolutely accountable for his or her own actions.

Absolute identification is a seductive idea. It's a pity that it is also fundamentally flawed. To understand why, you need to understand the technology and its shortcomings.

On the Identification of Infants
Three thousand years ago, two women in Jerusalem came before King Solomon. Both women had recently given birth to a child. Now one child was dead, and both women claimed the remaining child as their own. Solomon needed to identify the child and assign it to its rightful mother.

Today, Solomon's dilemma would be easy to solve. Unless the women were identical twins, they would have different genetic makeups. By testing blood from both adults and the child, the baby's true mother could be easily determined. Indeed, such genetic tests are routinely performed in the modern world to determine the paternity of children in child support cases.

But Solomon didn't have modern biology at his disposal. So Solomon called for his sword. Since the women could not decide between themselves, he said, the child would be divided in half. Solomon knew that the baby's true mother would rather yield custody than see her child killed. And moments later, when one of the women hastily gave up the baby, Solomon knew that the other woman was the liar.

Twenty-five hundred years later, the explorer João de Barros wrote about a different way to identify young children. In his book Décadas da Ásia, published in 1563, de Barros described how Chinese merchants identified young children by stamping their palm prints and footprints on paper with ink. These weren't just any pieces of paper, of course: they were deeds of sale. Once recorded in this way, there could be no chance of mistaking one child for another, which is quite important when human beings are being bought or sold.

Had Solomon wanted to, he could have instituted a similar system for registering the prints of every Israelite child at birth. Ancient Israel certainly had the necessary technology--parchment and ink--to carry out such a project. Ancient Israelites also knew that fingerprints were unique: in recent years, archeologists digging in Israel have discovered caches of clay pottery in which a thumbprint is clearly visible on each piece. Presumably, the potter had used his thumbprint as his own personal mark. But the idea of a national identification system never would have occurred to Solomon or any of his courtiers, because identification of adults was generally not a problem until the modern age.

Literature is filled with stories of mistaken identification: consider Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, the stories of the Doppelgänger, and many Shakespearean plays. These stories appealed to our ancestors precisely because swapped or mistaken identities were not the stuff of everyday life. Before the Industrial Revolution, the world had no real need for a formal system of strong identification. In Europe, there wasn't even a need for last names until the Middle Ages! Most people were born in a place and lived there all their lives. People knew who you were. Outsiders were clearly identifiable.

Anthropometrical Signalment
A constellation of events in the late nineteenth century forced governments to find better ways to identify the people within their borders. The first was the rise of the modern city, in which people routinely carried out their day-to-day business with strangers. In the city, citizens needed a way of identifying each other so they could avoid being cheated: identity promotes accountability. The second event was the improved ease of travel, which created waves of immigrants seeking new homes. In short order, xenophobic lawmakers throughout Europe and the United States passed strict immigration laws to keep out the newly mobile foreigners. This, in turn, created a need for strong identification systems to let officials distinguish citizens from noncitizens. The third reason for strong identification was the nouveau concept of criminal rehabilitation--the idea that people who committed a crime could be rehabilitated and set on a new path, rather than simply put to death or exiled. Some sort of identification system was required to distinguish a first-time pickpocket from a habitual offender.

It was the problem of identifying convicted criminals that caught the attention of Alphonse Bertillion (1853-1914), a Parisian anthropologist. How do you identify a pickpocket who has been caught for the fourth time, if each time the crook is arrested he gives a different name? How is it possible to establish the continuity of identity without the cooperation of the individual?

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