Review: Database Nation –The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century (Paperback)

4 Star, Privacy

Amazon Page
Amazon Page

4.0 out of 5 stars Quite Useful Exploration of Technology vs. Values,

May 31, 2006
Simson Garfinkel
I have been reading books about privacy, notably from Australia where they first got worried about this, and am an admirer of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) based in Washington, D.C. so I can say with confidence that this book is not completely original, but I can also say that it is quite useful. The single best and most original book in this area that I am aware of with my own limitations, is Jeffrey Rothfeder's 1992 classic, Privacy for Sale: How Computerization Has Made Everyone's Private Life an Open Secret.

The author captured my immediate interest when he posited early on that it is capitalism, not totalitarianism, that is the really grave threat to privacy, and then goes on throughout the book to demonstrate how capitalist innovation–and capitalist retribution–can find so many more profitable uses for stolen or insufficiently protected personal information including information about one's precise movements, Internet access, payments, and so on.

I credit the author with providing us with a really SUPERB discussion of an expanded definition of privacy and why it matters for the future, to include how a lack of privacy stifles free speech and individual voting or engagement.

The book is of course timely with the recent revelation of widespread NSA access to telephone records and widespread domestic telephone interceptions without warrants. I am quite certain NSA has full access to all travel and credit card records, and relatively certain that NSA is also obtaining full access to all banking transactions both within and passing through the USA. Eventually, as the dollar collapses and foreigners realize their financial transactions are not private, I suspect that the NSA intrusions will lead directly to a substantial reduction in what people are willing to transfer via US channels, and in this way deprive the US of interest and assets.

The author merits credit for anticipating in 1999 that terrorism would one day be used to justify extensive intrusions against privacy.

Most interestingly, the author reveals, for the first time to my knowledge, that NSA is in the phone card business. All those phone cards that terrorists and criminals have been using evidently have tracking information, and the testimony in the McVeigh case that the author illuminates makes it certain that this source and method will dry up for NSA with those who really matter: literate terrorists and criminals who, like Bin Laden, understand the value of open sources of information and make it their business to follow the literature.

Although the author's information with respect to credit card errors is somewhat dated, it merits comment that in 1991 there were errors in fully 43% of the files of the three main credit bureaus and–this I did NOT know–even if one corrects errors with those three credit bureaus, the corrections do NOT pass down to the 187 independent industry or localized credit bureaus that have purchased the incorrrect data prior to correction. More recently the industry claims a 1% material error factor, but in my own experience, the credit bureaus are quick to post liens or claims, and not at all interested in posting lien cancellations or settlements.

The author spends quite a bit of time, very usefully, in focusing on the fact that identity theft occurs due to lax banking and postal procedures (I for one am very upset over the countless offers of credit I receive in the undefended mail, offers that can be “hijacked” by anyone cruising for such mail before I collect it), and then denouncing the fact that victims of identify theft do not have “standing” in the courts–it is treated as a banking issue.

The book concludes with several scares and big ideas. Car have computers that can communicate–the day is coming when cars will report their owners for speeding, and a husband driving a wife bleeding to death from a farm accident will not be able to override the computerized speed limit. The author concludes that technology is eliminating the expectation of privacy, but I am more concerned by his documentation that we are becoming slaves to computers programmed by morons in bureaucracies.

The author suggests that a major challenge is how to create self-healing systems and I am curious as to why he did not know of Eric Hughes anonymous banking encryption protocols, in which only the bank and the client can see their banking data, which is otherwise constantly encrypted.

The federal government is clearly avoiding accountability, not only with respect to data privacy, but with respect to being accountable for who knew what when. The White House and the Senate clearly knew in 1974-1979 that Peak Oil was upon us (see my review of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy and also of Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil), and deliberate decisions were made to conceal the facts from the public in order to keep the bribes coming and the easy elections going. We wasted 30 years because of decisions that can now be judged to be treasonous and retrospectively impeachable.

The book has acceptable coverage of biometics, RFID, public video, and commercial space imagery. In the latter, the book has a mistake SPOT Image likes to take credit for many things, and they evidently claim credit for creating a C-130 portable ground receiving station. This is not true. Colonel “Snake” Clark in the office of the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, conceptualized and oversaw the development of that capability which made a major difference to air operations in Bosnia among other places, as it made possible near real time seasonally accurate wide area imagery feeds directly into the Air Force mission rehearsal systems.

To end on a positive note, I point to page 108 of the book, where the author discusses inexpensive discreet video surveillance systems that can be used to keep an eye on kids, cats, baby sitters, realtors showing one's home, and so on. Technology does have its uses for the individual, and I will end by saying that I found this book to be a very professional and useful overview of the implications of both digital technology, and the personal information that technology can capture, store, manipulate, share, and exploit.

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