NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, August 2003
Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century
by Simson Garfinkel
Published by O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.
http://www.oreilly.com (2000) $16.95
Reviewed by Ron Feiertag
Contributing Editor, APCUG Reports

When it comes to privacy, Simson Garfinkel wrote the book. Or at least he wrote one pretty good book about a subject of increasing importance, titled "Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century". Privacy is already one of the most important issues of our time. This conclusion is supported by an article in the Washington Post from May 5, 2003 with the headline: "Justices to Hear Privacy Case: Supreme Court Will Decide if Government Must Release Foster Photos". The article went on to explain: "The high court will balance people's privacy interests, in this case involving Foster's family, against the rights of others under a public records law." This court case is just one in a series of battles that will determine how much or how little privacy Americans will enjoy in the future. Although the issue of privacy affects people in many different countries, the focus of "Database Nation" is privacy in the USA

O'Reilly & Associates publishes many computer related books in addition to "Database Nation". The O'Reilly User Group Program supports established user groups and it can be found at http://ug.oreilly.com/. O'Reilly & Associates also provided the Association of Personal Computer User Groups with one of the nine judges of last year's Best Newsletter and Best Web Site Contests. Her name is Marsee Henon and she helped to make APCUG's contests a success. An O'Reilly book often focuses on a single software program (such as "Windows XP Pro: The Missing Manual" and "Mac OS X: The Missing Manual"), or is about a single programing language, or is intended to be read by someone who has a specific computer related job (such as systems administrator). Part of the beauty of "Database Nation" is that it would be of interest to people who use computers in any capacity, or to people who know someone who does. Although this book explores how technology often helps to reduce people's privacy, the issues involved are explained clearly without being dumbed down.

Garfinkel describes privacy as "the right of people to control what details about their lives stay inside their own houses and what leaks to the outside." He mentions the ways in which each of us can be harmed by a loss of privacy and he explains why some people have an economic interest in eroding other people's privacy protections. This book explores a series of privacy related issues in a way that any reader should be able to understand. After educating yourself about these issues, you could decide whether or not it is in your interest to take further action to affect privacy related issues that are being decided in legislatures and courts over the next several years.

Reading about privacy issues is a good thing, but how can someone write a 300 page book about privacy without driving away its readers by giving them too much of a good thing? If you are Simson Garfinkel, you make privacy the core of a book that goes off on countless tangents to explore interesting topics that touch on the theme of this book about privacy. He makes it clear that privacy is not dead, that our privacy is worth preserving, and that we can act to defend our right to privacy. Some of the many tangential issues that his book explores are the risks and effects of identity theft, the increasing use of biometrics, what sometimes happens when medical records are not kept private, the history of wiretapping, arguments for and against sealing adoption records, the history and impact of the photocopier, the Video Privacy Protection Act, and civil liberties issues.

Almost everything that Garfinkel wrote in this book appears to be sensible. One exception was when he wrote "It's a campaign that is being pursued, hand in hand, by government, businesses, and ordinary citizens. We are all guilty." My reply to that is: all generalizations are false (except for generalizations about generalizations). This book has only one other short paragraph that appears to me to be bizarre and unbelievable. It is about international politics. Other than that, I found his book to be interesting, educational and useful.

One example of the many excellent points made by this author is: "So here is the root of the conflict: new technologies are creating tremendous new opportunities for violent groups to inflict death and destruction on society as a whole. At the same time, new technologies are also giving law enforcement agencies the ability to conduct universal surveillance of the citizenry in ways that have never before been imaginable. Should law enforcement organizations engage in widespread, pervasive surveillance to deal with the rising risk of megaterrorists?" Those words were all the more remarkable because they were written before the attacks of September 11, 2001. Later in his book he quoted a civil libertarian who wrote: "I believe that the threat of this kind of terrorism that you are talking about is grossly overstated...I believe that it is intentionally overstated by law enforcement agencies intent on increasing their powers. Let me put it this way: I can't think offhand of any event in history of enormous destruction of life and property that was carried out by private individuals or groups rather than governments." That civil libertarian's statement looks especially shortsighted in light of the attacks of September 11. Those attacks and the situation that we find ourselves in today cause me to believe that government should be allowed to take actions that would increase our security even if they reduce one aspect of our privacy, but we need stronger protections to shield our privacy from people outside of government, and there must be stronger civil and criminal penalties that would punish anyone inside of government who discloses information about us to people outside of government. In other words, I would allow government to have more information about me in order to increase public safety, but it must not be allowed to sell that information or to misuse it in any way.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this review as long as it is kept in context, with proper credit given the author. This review is brought to you by the Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member.

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