Don't look now, but we know all about you

DATABASE NATION By Simson Garfinkel O'Reilly Books 320 pp., $24.95

A few days ago, I picked up a new computer modem at a local retailer. I had already paid for it by credit card over the phone. As the sales clerk was preparing a receipt, she asked for my Social Security number. When I asked her why she needed that, she told me it was "policy." I politely told her that I did not want to give it to her. She seemed surprised and then dashed away to confer with a superior. When she returned, she told me my number would not be needed.

The sales clerk had technically not done anything illegal - she had just asked for my SSN. If I had given it to her, her company, part of a national chain, would have had access to scads of information about me that has nothing to do with computer modems, but that they might have been able to sell to other businesses eager for details on my credit history and buying habits.

It's just this kind of "policy" that is at the heart of Simson Garfinkel's "Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century." Garfinkel, who wrote about technology for the Monitor in the early 1990s, argues convincingly that our privacy is under assault from a variety of sources, including government agencies, talented computer-geek teenagers next door (or in Tombouctou!), but most consistently from "capitalism, the free market, advanced technology, and the unbridled exchange of electronic information."

O'Reilly Books, the publisher of "Database Nation," compares it to Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," the book that almost single-handedly started the environmental movement in the '60s. Garfinkel is not the elegant writer that Carson is, but it's still not a bad comparison. While issues of privacy have been debated far more today than environmental concerns were in Carson's era, Garfinkel is the first to decisively and persuasively marshal all the information to show how privacy is under constant attack, often by people who claim to have our best interests at heart.

It's this emphasis on the role that capitalism and the free market play in diminishing our privacy in the name of making money that will no doubt upset the most people. But as Garfinkel writes, the evidence can't be ignored. These days, advertisers, venture capitalists, and marketers demand more and more personal information about customers before they'll advertise in the media, or back a new start-up, or invest in an established company. Consequently, we're being asked for more and more personal information from corner stores, online retailers, and mail-order firms.

Sometimes that information is gathered without our permission, as shown by the recent Electronic Privacy Information Center report on online retailers. (Not a single firm in the top 100 online retailers had adequate privacy protection practices, and several dozen employed ads that track your movements online even after you've left their site.)

What I enjoyed most about "Database Nation" was Garfinkel's ability to write about privacy issues without ranting or raving. The picture he paints is clear, sharp, and focused - a wake-up call rather than a fire alarm. And unlike many authors who only point to problems, Garfinkel offers sound advice about alternatives to many privacy-damaging practices.

For instance, he acknowledges the importance of protecting the public against acts of terrorism. But he says this can be done without infringing on the rights of private citizens or casting a wide net of suspicion over an entire ethnic or religious group. What is required, he writes, is careful planning and thoughtfulness about difficult issues - something most government and private organizations are not willing to do.

But Garfinkel's most interesting and probably most controversial thesis is that government, rather than being the Big Brother of "1984," is the average citizen's best friend in the fight to protect privacy - and that vigorous, muscular legislation, and not voluntary standards, is the best way to protect citizens' rights.

Garfinkel's book comes at a good time. Many experts believe that privacy and security issues will ultimately dwarf the Y2K hysteria of the past two years. "Database Nation" gives a way to detect the privacy land mines in our culture and ultimately disarm them.

*Tom Regan is associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition. You can e-mail him at

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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