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Home > Privacy Fundamentals > Book Reviews > Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century

Book Review: Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century, by Simson Garfinkel, Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 336 pages

Database Nation is as broadly sweeping and thoroughly researched a book as you will find on concerns about our technological future. These merits do not overcome – indeed they, contribute to – its chief demerit: the book tells no consistent story other than “Be afraid!”

Author Simson Garfinkel has poured everything into this book, including credit reporting, DNA, satellite remote sensing, medical records, terrorism, affinity marketing, and much, much more. There’s even a chapter on artificial intelligence. (An oversight: no mention of the privacy threat from the kitchen sink.)

Artificial intelligence would seem out of place if everything in the book weren’t equally rootless. In the AI chapter, for example, Garfinkel cites the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Marc Rotenberg for the proposition that computers will one day know everything about you, at which point “we don’t lose just individuality, we lose the individual.” This is scary-sounding, meaningless fluff.

At least Garfinkel is straightforward about his failure to understand privacy as a concept before embarking on a book about it. An early section titled “What Do We Mean by Privacy?” wends its way through individual liberty, self-possession, autonomy, integrity, civil rights, control, and anonymity, rather than adopting a definition of privacy.

“We know our privacy is under attack,” says Garfinkel. “The problem is that we don’t know how to fight back.” More precise would have been: “We just don’t know what it is.”

Database Nation and its author are darlings of the techno-phobic, anti-commercial left – Ralph Nader gives the book glowing commentary on both covers – because the prescription for nearly every concern is a regulatory control of some kind or another. The final chapter (called “Privacy Now!”) lays out a variety of regulatory approaches to various information policy problems, touching only briefly and without irony on the fact that governments are a chief threat to privacy, not a savior.

There are merits to positions Garfinkel takes in the book: He recognizes that an intellectually property-like regime giving people special ownership of facts about them would upend his ability to keep an address book. This is better thinking than some, who believe that people can own basic facts about themselves yet live in a functional world. But one is left with the feeling that Garfinkel stumbled over this point. Database Nation does not provide thoughtful analysis of the dozens of interesting problems it raises.

Again, though, credit is due to this author for an interesting and diverse book. It takes the reader zooming across the technology landscape.

Sometimes the volume of material in a non-fiction book is a proxy for intellectual quality. That fallacy should not be indulged here. The book just provides lots of different things to think about.


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[updated 10/11/04]

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