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JILT 2000 (1) - Alistair Kelman

Simson Garfinkel

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

O'Reilly & Associates 2000 $24.95
350pp ISBN 0 1 565 926 536

Reviewed by
Alistair Kelman
Telepathic Industries Ltd



1. Introduction

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).

2. The Threat of Data Shadows

In revisiting this sphere in, what will undoubtedly be a key book of the first decade of the new century, Simson Garfinkel has one key advantage over lawyers like Professor Alan Westin - Simson 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.

3. Lack of Governmental Control

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. It is one of two weaknesses in his text: Garfinkel sets out the problem with clarity and sincerity but his solution, to this European, appears unworkable since we are already past the stage where the US Government could control data shadowing.

The US Government does not control the Internet world as their attempts to control private use of encryption and the regulation of domain names have shown. Instead the benefits of strong privacy protection need to be built into the next generation of e-business infrastructure - with support for such voluntary measures being given active support by government throughout the world. And the US law of torts needs to be extended by a determined judiciary to cover situations such as that of Nadia Velazquez, who three weeks after she won New York's Democratic primary in 1994, received a telephone call from Pete Hamill, a reporter on the New York Post. Someone at the St Clair Hospital in New York had faxed Velazquez's medical records to the New York Post. The records detailed the care that Velazquez had received after a suicide attempt. 'When I found this information was being published in the newspaper and that I had no power to stop it, I felt violated. I trusted the system and it failed me.'

4. When Private becomes Public

As Garfinkel says the debate in Database Nation - 'is not about the man who wants to watch pornography in complete anonymity over the Internet - it is about the woman who is afraid to use the Internet to organise her community against a proposed toxic dump - she is afraid because the dump's investors are sure to dig through her past if she becomes too much of a nuisance. It is not about people speeding on the nations highways who get automatically generated tickets mailed to them thanks to a computerised speed trap. It is about lovers who will take less joy in walking around city streets or visiting stores because they know they're being photographed by surveillance cameras everywhere they step. It is not about the special prosecutors who leave no stone unturned in their search for corruption or political misdeeds. It is about good, upstanding citizens who are now refusing to enter public service because they do not want a bloodthirsty press rummaging through their old school reports, computerised medical records and e-mail. ...'

5. The Global Debate

Garfinkel's only other weakness is that his book does not sufficiently look outside the United States, in particular at World Data Flows and the changes being brought about by Electronic Commerce. One book which is not in his bibliography which should be there is None of Your Business by Peter P. Swire and Robert E. Litan (Brooking Institute Press 1998) which looks at the looming threat of Europe's data privacy regime on corporate America. But all this is minor carping.

6. Conclusion

Simson Garfinkel's book is a work of great importance which should be read by anyone concerned about Freedom in the Internet Age. It is a fine exposition and analysis of where we are today and where we are going in the Database Nation.

This is a Book Review published on 29 February 2000.

Citation: Kelman A, 'Database Nation:The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century', Book Review, 2000 (1) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

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