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Database Nation (Hardback)

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Database Nation (Hardback), 9781565926530 (1565926536), O'Reilly, 2000
Forget the common cold for a moment. Instead, consider the rise of "false data syndrome," a deceptive method of identification derived from numbers rather than more recognizable human traits. Simson Garfinkel couples this idea with concepts like "data shadow" and "datasphere" in Database Nation, offering a decidedly unappealing scenario of how we have overlooked privacy with the advent of advanced technology.

According to Garfinkel, "technology is not privacy neutral." It leaves us with only two choices: 1) allow our personal data to rest in the public domain or 2) become hermits (no credit cards, no midnight video jaunts--you get the point).

Garfinkel's thoroughly researched and example-rich text explores the history of identification procedures; the computerization of ID systems; how and where data is collected, tracked, and stored; and the laws that protect privacy. He also explains who owns, manipulates, ensures the safety of, and manages the vast amount of data that makes up our collective human infrastructure. The big surprise here? It's not the United States government who controls or manages the majority of this data but rather faceless corporations who trade your purchasing habits, social security numbers, and other personal information just like any other hot commodity.

There's a heck of a lot of data to digest about data here and only a smidgen of humor to counterbalance the weight of Garfinkel's projections. But then again, humor isn't really appropriate in connection with stolen identities; medical, bank, and insurance record exploitation; or the potential for a future that's a "video surveillance free-for-all."

In many information-horrific situations, Garfinkel explores the wide variety of data thievery and the future implications of larger, longer-lasting databases. "Citizens," Garfinkel theorizes, "don't know how to fight back even though we know our privacy is at risk." In a case study involving an insurance claim form, he explains how a short paragraph can grant "blanket authorization" to all personal (not just medical) records to an insurance company. Citizens who refuse to sign the consent paragraph typically must forfeit any reimbursement for medical services. Ultimately, "we do not have the choice [as consumers] either to negotiate or to strike our own deal."

This book is more than simply a journalistic summary of the current state of privacy rights and violations. It is a call to arms. Forty years ago, unbridled technology attacked our environment--and few people seemed to know or care. With the publication of "Silent Spring" in 1962, Rachel Carson opened our eyes. Her graphic depiction of the ecological and health ravages brought by technology made many people realize the risks as never before. Today, our environment still imperils us, but things are better than they might have been, and we have a population that's informed and, in many cases, activist.

This book pleads the case for privacy in the same way. There is much that can be done with, not in spite of, technology. An aware public is the first step. It is our hope that this book will open the public's eyes to the many intrusions on our privacy before it is too late.

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