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Database Nation - The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century
By Simson Garfinkel
Published in 2000 by O'Reilly
312pp ISBN 0 596 00105 3 £11.95

Database Nation - The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century

You occasionally get deja-vu when you are reading a book, but as I read this one The Guardian (4/8/01) carried a story of how certain Birmingham stores were starting to take fingerprints to support credit card purchases, an issue considered by Garfinkel.

This book (although focussing on US issues) makes you think…HARD! On a typical weekend you might go to the gym (gaining access by swiping your membership card). Stop off to buy petrol (and have your registration number scanned and your face photographed). Pay with your debit card (that then goes on a database identifying where you were and when). Use you credit card and loyalty cards on a minor shopping spree (again more database records). Be recorded on video as you shop (in the shops and outside). Phone your partner with your mobile to locate them in the large out of town shopping centre (place and time again logged). Get 'flashed' by a traffic camera on your way home (then nervously wait for 14 days to see if you get a letter). And we've not got to Saturday tea yet!

What this book reminds us is that if someone is bothered enough they can put information together and create a total profile of anyone. This can be reassuring or worrying. As someone living in Warrington at the time of the bombings I have a tendency to be reassured (shop videos helped the prosecution). But then I feel I have nothing to hide. If I were mis-identified and had no other location evidence (even dna evidence isn't totally unique - just very unlikely to mis-match) then I might get worried. Our only security may be the amazing volume of information produced.

Garfinkel looks at all these issues, mostly with reference to the situation in the US. He seems to blame weak US watered-down legislation for many of the issues. He considers ownership of information, accuracy of information (and how to correct it) and those who relinquish their privacy in the name of art (or cash!) by projecting their life over the internet with webcams and diaries.

This is an excellent read and certainly an essential text for anyone studying the social implications of ICT.

Neil Stanley
Reviews Editor