Somebody’s Watching Me

Datahase Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century, by Simson Garfinkel

Our every movement is tracked by video cameras. Our DNA is ransacked for defects. Every time we buy, borrow, browse or click, a note lands in a database somewhere, adding to an electronic dossier we are often powerless to correct or even read. According to Simson Garfinkel, information technology has made life a Kafkaesque nightmare, governed by all the bratty Little Brothers — insurance companies, employers, credit card issuers, direct marketers — who ferret out and broadcast our secrets. So great is technology’s capacity to observe and record every facet of our existence that Garfinkel fears it will all end with the “extraction of self” into a total computer simulation of our individual consciousnesses.

Garfinkel tries hard to convince us of the danger in all this, even throwing in an entire chapter of gratuitous alarmism about “kooks and terrorists” with biowarfare capability. He is paralyzed with anxiety about an anthrax strike, which he regards as a foregone conclusion (“we need to start planning for what to do after we lose New York City.”) None of this has anything to do with databases, except that terrorists may provoke the police into really intensifying their information-gathering (see the section on The Moral Duty to Torture).

Now, I am a hardcore Luddite, but Database Nation didn’t terrify me. Modern technology has lots of threatening ramifications. Loss of privacy isn’t one of them. Garfinkel makes some sensible suggestions, like mandating that people be told when information is collected and guaranteeing them the right to read and correct it. But privacy rhetoric usually masks deeper issues. The most serious abuse of information Garfinkel discusses is the denial of health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions and other warning signs in their medical histories. As he concedes, this problem would be solved if America had a national health insurance system like every other civilized country. But because he regards that option as “politically impossible,” he’s stuck with offering various pointless strategies to help patients hide their medical records from the health care industry.

Life is a Kafkaesque nightmare, governed by bratty Little Brothers who ferret out and broadcast our secrets.

Garfinkel is particularly incensed by the privacy crime of direct marketing and its insidious use of personal information to manipulate consumers (even children!) He has his own horror story: shortly after moving to a new house, he received postcards from a stock brokerage and a chimney-sweep service — even though he has no chimney. “These advertisements left me feeling violated,” he sobs. Most people who react to a telemarketing call the way they would to a violent rectal probe, will relate to his sense of outrage at all the come-ons pitched our way. But why blame technology? Surely answering machines, caller ID and PrivacyManager have kept us a step ahead of the telemarketers, and waste basket technology is still holding the line against junk mail.

Ranging far afield of our basic privacy needs, which are pretty much satisfied as long as no one can see us naked, Database Nation is a compendium of bourgeois paranoia in which the mass of responsible card-holders is beset on every side — by terrorists wafting anthrax, by secret police torturers, by identity thieves who ruin our credit ratings. Most of all, we are haunted by a terrible identity crisis. We suspect that marketers really do have us pegged; that they know our children better than we do; that we are so shallow, transparent, and encompassed by consumerist urges that our very souls can be extracted and simulated from the data in our Visa statements.

Paradoxically, privacy may be what we fear most. It is the dividing line between middle class citizenship and the true anonymity that befalls you when your credit history goes bad and your privacy isn’t worth violating, when the credit card offers stop coming, the financial planners stop calling, your HMO card stops scanning, the loan officer doesn’t know you, and you’re finally out on the street, a complete unknown.

Datahase Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century, by Simson Garfinkel (O’Reilly; ISBN: 1565926536)


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