The Digital Person Technology and Privacy in the Information Age
by Daniel Solove

New York University Press 2004.
ISBN 0-8147-9846-2. LoC KF1263.C65S668.282 pages. $29.95. Index. Endnotes.

Reviewed by  Robert Bruen   January 13, 2005 

The consequences of the integration of digital technology have been in the minds and public words of many people. One did not need to have a crystal ball to see that the capture of information in bits had long reaching tentacles. The state of "Big Brother" from the novel 1984 was clearly on its way. The expectations of the most fearful have shown themselves in many forms, with such government programs as CAPPS. However, not everyone saw that there were others to be feared, for example, the corporations. Big Brother was the government, not a corporation. The model does not quite work.

Solove has come up with a new model, taken from a novel by Franz Kafka with the title The Trial from 1937. In it the protagonist is arrested without explanation. The rest of the story details his mind-numbing attempts to navigate the maze of the bureaucracy to find out why the arrest has happened. With Big Brother the enemy was clear, in the Trial nothing is clear but helplessness.

It is this new model that is the basis for The Digital Person. We all have a dossier of some kind distributed throughout many databases in governments and in businesses. Our finances are chronicled in IRS and state databases as well as in credit bureaus, credit card companies, phone companies, supermarket discount cards, and on and on. Much of this has been detailed in Simson Garfinkel's Database Nation. Solove takes it one step further.

The Digital Person is well documented, as one would expect from a lawyer, with copious endnotes, yet the book is very accessible to the reader. It is not a technical book, but rather about the social implications of technology. And what we should about it. The first step is to understand what is happening using the new model. For those of us who enjoy complaining about the government as it crushes our freedoms really know that it is quite transparent. Secret projects are somewhat limited and we can always bring issues to court. Corporations are not so transparent. Their books are not easily accessible, in fact, often they seem to be above the law. The collected information can be buried very deeply, as can the uses of the information. Just try to get a mistake in your credit report corrected.

The second step is architecture, which involves the Constitution, record keeping, and oversight. So all is not lost. Solove presents the argument that if we can understand the problem and use what we have, we can cope with this digital person created by progress of technological development. If we do not structure it correctly we will all end up like Joseph K in the trial, who was executed without ever actually having a trial and never found out why he was arrested.

This is not only a book you should read, but you should make sure your friends read it, and if they have not yet done so, have them read Database Nation as well.