Database Nation: The Death of Privacy at the End of the 21st

Posted on Jul 1, 2007 By : Mizake Laziaf
Database Nation: The Death of Privacy at the End of the 21st Ce
author Simson Garfinkel
pages 312
publisher O'Reilly & Associates
rating 7/10; 9/
reviewer Matthias Wenger, Kurt Gray
ISBN 1-56592-653-6
summary Thoughtful look at threats to privacy, and appropriate responses

by Hemos

Review 1: Matthias Wenger

Personally, privacy has been a big issue lately -- hearing about DoubleClick and Real Networks customer tracking made the issue a bit of a sore point for me. Then a friend of mine bought a shredder after her credit card fell victim to a Dumpster diver, and I started getting paranoid. Reading Database Nation hasn't helped, but it brings up some possible solutions and provides a good deal to think about as we march blindly on towards Big Brother, Inc.

Database Nation starts out strong, with a hypothetical day in the life of someone with no privacy -- cold-call telemarketing at 6:30 in the morning, surveillence cameras all around, veiled blackmail for a hospital in desperate need of cash and plenty of medical histories, still more cameras at work, etc. This story ends up being a rough outline for the book, which also covers electronic footprints (ATM and credit card records and the like), private databasing a la DoubleClick, identity vs. body, and surprisingly enough, AI and intelligence agents. Each of the major topics covered has at least a full chapter devoted to it -- explaining the specific issues at hand, what sort of data is at risk, who would be interested in such data, and how data can be protected.

The biggest flaw in the book is that it is too ambitious -- how can you cover the sanctity of medical records in 30 pages? It would be difficult to do a better job with such space limitations, certainly, but it does make for a more general view of privacy rather than dealing with specifics. The result is "Privacy in a Nutshell," to steal a turn of phrase from O'Reilly. Given the subject matter, the Nutshell approach might even be preferable, since the theory can be applied in any situation once the awareness is there. Still, each topic felt like it could be expanded much further.

The over-eager breadth of the subject matter is also wonderful. Enough particular concerns are illustrated in each topic that there is an outline of the larger picture of information management even though a good deal remains to be filled in. Covering so many topics makes it easier to see just how much information can be collected about an individual while they remain unawares, and just how much that information can be abused or misused. To illustrate this very point, Garfinkel relates the story of an Internet-based scavenger hunt where the end result was to find out as much as possible about a particular "target," working only with a name. The information collected in 1993 included his place of employment, parents' names, home address, degrees earned, doctoral dissertation, the operating system he used, what his fiance's name was, and more. I found out five minutes ago, with the help of google, that he's now married and that he and his wife hyphenated their last names together. That was just the first hit. And that was a very casual search -- if someone was really interested in finding information, what are the limits?

Database Nation is, in a way, the ultimate discussion of information security. Garfinkel covers an amazing range of topics in exploring privacy and personal information today and into the 21st century. This is both a blessing and a curse -- there are so many things to be aware of, so many topics and points of view to consider, yet each one is worthy of more attention. At the opening of the book, Garfinkel expresses hope that Database Nation will do for privacy what Silent Spring did for environmentalism -- if something doesn't do it soon, there wont be any privacy left to save.

Review 2: Kurt Gray

If Simson Garfinkel's name doesn't ring a bell, check the computer section of your local bookstore or library: Garfinkel co-authored the O'Reilly Practical UNIX Security book, the O'Reilly Stopping Spam book, and some six other books. Before I was a Slashdot addict I enjoyed reading Garfinkel's columns in Packet and the Boston Globe , where his talents for technology journalism and futurist projections make informative reading for geeks and lay persons alike.

Just as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle led to sweeping reforms in the meat-packing industry (and probably turned a lot of people to vegetarianism) Garfinkel's latest book, Database Nation, should draw some much-needed attention to the manner in which everyone's personal information is being captured, cataloged and sold as commodity, and how each aspect of this process detracts from our civil liberties. If you're an American, you certainly know what the IRS is, but have you ever heard of TRW? Equifax? Experian? Or the DMA? Or the MIB, the Medical Insurance Bureau? Each of these corporate entities keeps records on you that determine your eligibility for bank loans, lines of credit, and medical insurance. Are you allowed to see your own record? Well, it's their data, so it doesn't belong to you -- but maybe if you ask them nicely and have due cause, they'll make an exception. Suppose you discover an error in the records they keep on you; are you allowed to demand corrections? Now you're asking subversive questions so we're putting an CM31 flag on your file ... George Orwell warned that the march of technology could allow a monolithic, tyrannical Big Brother to emerge. Database Nation points out that it's the thousands of unsupervised "kid brothers" that have a far greater potential to disrupt your life, and in ways you never expected.

I find the best way to summarize this book is chapter-by-chapter, so here are my own brief reviews of each chapter:

Chapter 1: Privacy Under Attack: Garfinkel opens with his own futurist vision: a day in the life of a typical working American. This hapless near-future dweller is continuously surrounded by targeted advertising, monitored at home and even in his car, and works in an office where constant politeness is enforced by the company surveillance cameras that are programmed to recognize facial expressions and sound an alarm whenever an employee appears disgruntled. Garfinkel explains that this book is not about Big Brother, but rather how the widespread capture and exchange of our personal information has been eroding our civil liberties already and goes largely unnoticed. Garfinkel makes the positive point that no threat to our privacy that exists today is beyond our control, and that we can develop robust, built-in systems of privacy protection rather than allow them to be only loosely guaranteed by the legal equivalent of patchwork.

Chapter 2: Database Nation: Chapter 2 starts with a historical perspective, answering the question "How did we get here?" In short, via the national census, the Social Security Board (leading to the creation of the National Data Center) and the widespread adoption of the Social Security Number and its inherent flaws (limited data capacity and lack of a checksum digit to avoid clerical errors). Page 26 launches into the disturbing episode of Steve and Nancy Ross, whose lives were shattered when the IRS botched their tax returns in 1983 and put a lien on the Ross' house for $10,000. That lien was noted in their credit records at TRW and Equifax, which in turn sold this data to 187 other independent credit bureaus. Here Garfinkel makes an interesting observation: the Ross' bad credit data spread "like a computer virus that kept reinfecting TRW's computer with incorrect information," and it took over seven years for the bulk of their credit problems to subside. Chapter 2 then explains how simple identity theft can be, whether Dumpster diving for credit statements (hint: buy yourself a cross-cutting shredder), or using Equifax's quickie credit report service to find chumps with good lines of credit, then applying for new credit cards in the victims' names. Equifax provides such thieves with everything they need: mother's maiden name, previous addresses, SSN -- it's all there. The victim's credit rating is ruined for years while bill collectors harass them day and night, and the credit card company writes off the charges and flags the victim's file. Frequently, the credit thief gets a slap on the wrist if anything at all. Page 33 lists at least 30 government agencies that are hardwired to track you only by your SSN. Chapter 2 definitely had me sitting up and paying attention.

Chapter 3: Absolute Identification: Chapter 3 is about biometrics and unambiguous identification of every member in a society, a seductive idea that has tantalized policymakers for centuries. Garfinkel argues, however, that this idea is fundamentally flawed. Garfinkel again provides historical perspective, pointing out that using biometrics is an old idea that only appears new as the technology matures. Garfinkel reminds us that even DNA testing is flawled. When a person's name is linked to a given DNA profile, for example, how hard would it be to modify that database record and change the name attached to that profile? (And did you know that 99% of DNA from any two people is identical, so DNA tests actually compare only regions of the genome that are nonessential to cell life? Hmmm ...) Garfinkel then lists various other biometric technologies such as face, voice and iris recognition; even your signature can be used as a biometric identifier. Some of these systems are already in use: Have you signed for a UPS delivery lately, or signed for credit-card purchases on an electronic touch pad? Biometrics. So here's a near-future scenerio: suppose all children need to have a DNA test shortly after being born "for the baby's health." Then the FBI warehouses the DNA fingerprints of every citizen in the U.S., and sells the data to the insurance industry, which can then compare it to the human genome map to weed out the "at risk" people, then target healthy prospects for profitable health plan solicitations... big ol' cluestick being waved around here.

Chapter 4: What Did You Do Today?: Maybe you went shopping, got some cash from the ATM, racked up some more frequent flier miles? Even the most mundane events in your daily life are recorded and archived somewhere -- from how often you withdraw cash from an ATM, to your entire purchasing history at the neighborhood grocery store, even the movies you rent at the video store. Dramatic developments in data-storage technology make it easier for businesses to keep what Garfinkel calls "hot files" on every customer transaction from day one, and then describes how we are creating the Earth's "datasphere." Nearly every durable product you buy has a serial number. Often that serial number becomes attached to your name and personal information (ever filled out a warranty card?) which can then be sold on the open data market, Garfinkel argues that even seemingly mundane information needs to be treated with respect for privacy.

Chapter 5: The View From Above: Chapter 5 is about surveillence technology and the growing private market for satellite photos and Webcams. Does it bother me that right now someone can buy a grainy aerial photo of my neighborhood taken sometime in 1987? No, sorry, that doesn't bother me. City police departments are installing surveillance cameras in public places. I still don't care. Garfinkel then explains how he set up a QuickCam to time-lapse record his Realtor while allowing prospective buyers to browse through his home without supervision. At this point I can't tell if the chapter is supposed to a condemnation or an endorsement. I suppose Garfinkel is pointing out that it's technically possible that are being watched and recorded in places when you assume you're alone. At the very least, it should change your ideas about expectations of privacy.

Chapter 6: cite> To Know Your Future: So who is the MIB? Men in Black right? No, the MIB referred to here is the Medical Information Bureau, which happens to be the secretive data warehouse of the American medical insurance industry's "customer profiles." Think you have a God-given right to medical coverage? Well, if you like Kafka novels then you'll definitely enjoy the hijinks that erupt around page 139, where Garfinkel tells us of more than a few people who've been refused medical insurance because of clerical errors in their MIB records -- records which they never knew exisited. But wait, isn't it illegal in many cases to deny medical coverage to someone with preexisting conditions? Yeah, sure it is, so what's your point? Garfinkel points out that only 23 of the 50 states actually have laws that require citizens be allowed to view their own medical histories. My only complaint with this chapter is that it pursues flaws in existing policies rather than staying with the theme of technology marching faster than prudent policy.

Chapter 7: Buy Now!: The DMA is the Direct Marketing Association. They lobby lawmakers at the state and federal level to further what they consider a God-given right to own and sell any piece of information they can attach to you. One of the nation's largest direct marketing list resellers is Metromail, now owned by the credit bureau giant Experian. Ever apply for a shopping card or magazine subscription, or fill in a product bingo card? Ever fill out a change of address form at the post office? Direct marketers get an automatic notification of your new address from the U.S. Postal Service, which causes your name/address to be copied into a hot prospect list called "New Movers," one of many direct-mailing lists sold by Metromail at the rate of $60 per thousand names. Garfinkel lists some 50 products Experian sells to businesses, like AutoCredit for quickie loan approvals, Bankruptcy candidates, Business Owner Profiles, and Property Link which provides a details of a subject's property holdings. He then argues against the opt-out clause the DMA offers to whiners (arguing instead for a more consumer-oriented opt-in approach), and lists preventative steps you can take to keep your name on as few lists as possible. This chapter left me with a question: if you complain to a direct marketing firm about what they've been doing with your personal information and then they flag you as hostile, and that direct marketer happens to be owned by a major credit bureau, what would that to your credit rating? Food for thought.

Chapter 8: Who Owns Your Information?: Take the case of Ram Avarahmi, who tried to sue a magazine publisher for selling his name, which was in their list of subscribers, to other magazine publishers. Mr. Avarahmi argued that Virginia law states that his name and his image are his property which can not be used in advertising or trade without his consent, and guess what the courts told him? "Sorry Charlie, or Ram, whatever your name is." Information is basically owned by those who gather the information and personal information is a commodity. Medical information is also a commodity owned by medical insurance providers. But can all this medical information be abused? Or let me ask it like this: are we evolved enough to not attach genetic defects to say, a person's ethnicity? Garfinkel excerpts an ad he found in the New York Times: "Ashkenazi Jewish Families Are Needed to Help Scientists Understand the Biological Basis for Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder" -- a 1998 John Hopkins University study, right here in America in 1998. Certainly, some medical disorders are confined to certain populations; the question is, what if someone wants to abuse such links? So do you own the books you read or the software you use? No, thanks to copyright laws. Garfinkel makes the point that you can't use the concept of ownership to protect your privacy, because you don't own data about you, however I'm not convinced. Maybe I can't force you to take my name out of your address book, because you own your address book, but I think I do have the right to demand that you not send me mail or sell my address to other businesses without my consent.

Chapter 9: Kooks and Terrorists: This chapter argues that individual terrorists deploying low-tech explosive and biological contaminants have spooked us into accepting ever more surveillance of our everyday activities. True to his style, Garfinkel dismisses some well-known urban terrorist acts as amateur-night material, then describes two fairly effective methods of introducing anthrax into an unsuspecting office building. Further pages show how terrorists might gain access to nuclear and biochemical devices. Garfinkel's point here is that constant surveillance cannot save us from a determined kook. The chapter then moves into the Big Brother question: what constitutes thoughtcrime? Didn't our benevolent goverment inter over 100,000 Japanese-Americans at the start of World War II? Didn't J. Edgar Hoover's FBI spend much of 1950's investigating "Communists" and "homosexuals"? So could our government be trusted with "brain wiretapping" technology? Sounds far-fetched? We're already using polygraphs and experiments involving fast sucessive MRI scans. Garfinkel makes the point that if we are truly concerned about public safety, we should track dangerous materials rather than try to identify potentially dangerous people.

Chapter 10: Excuse Me, But Are You Human? Imagine you're on an electronic mailing list, and you strike up an e-mail dialog with another member of the list. He tells you some things bout himself and you share something about yourself in return. Turns out "he" was actually an AI conversationalist programmed by a marketing agency to gather personal information to be sold in the form of marketing lists. Garfinkel then describes various intelligent agents that can parse natural language. But how is this useful for marketing? It is technically feasible for a marketer to scan the entire datasphere for everything that can be found about you in order to create a predictive model of your behavior: When will you buying a new car? When you will be on vacation? Valuable stuff for direct marketers to know. Might it be possible in 50 years to create a complete AI behavorial copy of you, and test various marketing schemes against it? Garfinkel actually argues that avatars should be afforded the same privacy rights as humans.

Chapter 11: Privacy Now!: Is technology neutral in the war on privacy? Garfinkel's answer is no, technology permits the greater cataloging and measuring of the world around us, and therefore technology is inherently intrusive. He argues that for the cost of around $5 million added to the annual budget, a Federal oversight agency could be created to monitor and regulate the flow of personal information throughgovernment and business data channels. Further, he proposes a list of reasonable amendments to the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970, such as giving consumers the ability to sue for damages resulting from the addition of erroneous information to their credit reports. Garfinkel argues that better laws and policies will be more effective than cryptography in protecting one's privacy, and warns that when some have their privacy violated, you can expect retaliation such as deliberate pollution -- and disruption to -- the datasphere. Overall, Garfinkel concludes that we need laws and policies that repect our personal information, not just a technological picket fence.

Before reading Database Nation, I had the typical "nothing-to-hide" attitude regarding my own privacy. I didn't care if some government agency or large corporation was able to read my academic records, my medical records, my magazine subscriptions, my credit-card purchases, my phone bill. "Let them read it all for all I care," I thought, "I'm sure it would bore them to tears." After reading this book, I realize it's not so much about Big Brother, it's about how the spread of your personal information can bite you in the ass someday.

My assessment: Garfinkel jam-packed this book with information every American ought to be aware of -- enough to think about to make your head spin. Thankfully his tone is not hopeless gloom-and-doom; he does remind you that 30 years ago the Cuyahoga River was an environmental disaster, but today it's safe to eat fish caught there. Overall, it's a great book. Yet another reason for me to give a favorable review to anything Simson Garfinkel writes.

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