Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century
Simson Garfinkel
O'Reilly & Associates
312 pages, January 2000, Approx: $18
ISBN 1-56592-653-6

Reviewed by:  Gene Spafford, CERIAS, Purdue University.  January  2000.

First of all, I should disclose what is probably a conflict of interest. Simson and I have been friends for years, and we have collaborated on a number of projects, including 3 books. As such, some people (who don't know me well) might suspect that I wouldn't provide an objective review. So, if you think that might be the case, then discount my recommendation by half -- and still buy and read this book. Simson has done an outstanding job documenting and describing a set of issues that a great many people -- myself included -- believe will influence computing, e-commerce, law and public policy in the next decade. They also impact every person in modern society.

This book describes -- well, and with numerous citations -- how our privacy as individuals and members of groups has been eroding. Unfortunately, that erosion is accelerating, and those of us involved with information technology are a significant factor in that trend. Credit bureaus accumulate information on our spending, governments record the minutiae of their citizens' lives, health insurance organizations record everything about us that might prove useful to deny our claims, and merchants suck up every bit of information they can find so as to target us for more marketing. In each case, there is a seemingly valid reason, but the accumulated weight of all this record-keeping -- especially when coupled with the sale and interchange of the data -- is frightening. Simson provides numerous examples and case studies showing how our privacy is incrementally disappearing as more data is captured in databases large and small. The book includes chapters on a wide range of privacy-related issues, including medical information privacy, purchasing patterns and affinity programs, on-line monitoring, credit bureaus, genetic testing, government record-keeping and regulation, terrorism and law enforcement monitoring, biometrics and identification, ownership of personal information, and AI-based information modeling and collection. The 270 pages of text present a sweeping view of the various assaults on our privacy in day-to-day life. Each instance is documented as a case where someone has a reasonable cause to collect and use the information, whether for law enforcement, medical research, or government cost-saving. Unfortunately, the reality is that most of those scenarios are then extended to where the information is misused, misapplied, or combined with other information to create unexpected and unwanted intrusions.

Despite my overall enthusiasm, I was a little disappointed in a few minor respects with the book. Although Simson concludes the book with an interesting agenda of issues that should be pursued in the interests of privacy protection, he misses a number of opportunities to provide the reader with information on how to better his or her own control over personal information. For instance, he describes the opt-out program for direct marketing, but doesn't provide the details of how the reader can do this; Simson recounts that people are able to get their credit records or medical records from MIB, but then doesn't provide any information on how to get them or who to contact; and although he sets forth a legislative agenda for government, he fails to note realistic steps that the reader can take to help move that agenda forward. I suspect that many people will finish reading this book with a strong sense of wanting to do something, but they will not have any guidance as to where to go or who to talk with.

The book has over 20 pages of comprehensive endnotes and WWW references for the reader interested in further details. These URLs do include pointers to many important sources of information on privacy and law, but with a few puzzling omissions: I didn't see references to resources such as EPIC or Lauren Weinstein's Privacy digest outside of the fine print in the endnotes. I also didn't note references to ACM's Computers, Freedom and Privacy conferences, the USACM, or a number of other useful venues and supporters of privacy and advocacy. Robert Ellis Smith's "Privacy Journal" is mentioned in the text, but there is no information given as to how to subscribe it it. And so on. 

I also noted that the book doesn't really discuss much of the international privacy scene, including issues of law and culture that complicate our domestic solutions. However, the book is intended for a U.S. audience, so this is somewhat understandable. A few other topics -- such as workplace monitoring -- are similarly given more abbreviated coverage than every reader might wish. Overall, I recognized few of those.

On the plus side, the book is very readable, with great examples and anecdotes, and a clear sense of urgency. Although it is obvious that Simson is not an impartial party on these topics, he does present many of the conflicting viewpoints to illustrate the complexity of the issues. For instance, he presents data on the need for wiretaps and criminal investigation, along with accounts and descriptions of bioterrorism, including interviews with FBI officials, to illustrate why there are people of good faith who want to be able to monitor telephone conversations and email. If anything, this increases the impact of the book -- it is not an account of bad people with evil intent, but a description of what happens when ideas reasonable to a small group have consequences beyond their imagining -- or immediate concern. The death of privacy is one of a thousand cuts, each one small and seemingly made for a good reason. 

Simson has committed to adding important information to the WWW site for the book. Many (or most) of the items I have noted above will likely be addressed at the WWW site before long. Simson also has informed me that the publisher will be making corrections and some additions to future editions of the book if he deems them important. This is great news for those of us who will use the book as an classroom text, or if we recommend the book to policy makers on an on-going basis. Those of us with older copies will need to keep the URL on our bookmark list.

Overall, I was very pleased with the book. I read it all in one sitting, on a flight cross-country, and found it an easy read. I have long been interested in (and involved in) activities in protection of privacy, so I have seen and read most of the sources Simson references. Still, I learned a number of things from reading the book that I didn't already know -- Simson has done a fine job of presenting historical and ancillary context to his narrative without appearing overly pedantic.

This is a book I intend to recommend to all of my graduate students and colleagues. I only wish there was some way to get all of our elected officials to read it, too. I believe that everyone who values some sense of private life should be aware of these issues, and this book is a great way to learn about them. I suggest you go out and buy a copy -- but pay in cash instead of with a credit card, take mass transit to the store instead of your personal auto, and don't look directly into the video cameras behind the checkout counter. Once you read the book, you'll be glad you did.