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Database Nation by Simson Garfinkel

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The Role of Technology

Today's war on privacy is intimately related to the dramatic advances in technology we've seen in recent years. As we'll see time and again in this book, unrestrained technology ends privacy. Video cameras observe personal moments; computers store personal facts; and communications networks make personal information widely available throughout the world. Although some specialty technology may be used to protect personal information and autonomy, the overwhelming tendency of advanced technology is to do the reverse.

Privacy is fundamentally about the power of the individual. In many ways, the story of technology's attack on privacy is really the story of how institutions and the people who run them use technology to gain control over the human spirit, for good and ill. That's because technology by itself doesn't violate our privacy or anything else: it's the people using this technology and the policies they carry out that create violations.

Many people today say that in order to enjoy the benefits of modern society, we must necessarily relinquish some degree of privacy. If we want the convenience of paying for a meal by credit card, or paying for a toll with an electronic tag mounted on our rear view mirror, then we must accept the routine collection of our purchases and driving habits in a large database over which we have no control. It's a simple bargain, albeit a Faustian one.

I think this tradeoff is both unnecessary and wrong. It reminds me of another crisis our society faced back in the 1950s and 1960s—the environmental crisis. Then, advocates of big business said that poisoned rivers and lakes were the necessary costs of economic development, jobs, and an improved standard of living. Poison was progress: anybody who argued otherwise simply didn't understand the facts.

Today we know better. Today we know that sustainable economic development depends on preserving the environment. Indeed, preserving the environment is a prerequisite to the survivability of the human race. Without clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, we will all surely die. Similarly, in order to reap the benefits of technology, it is more important than ever for us to use technology to protect personal freedom.

Blaming technology for the death of privacy isn't new. In 1890, two Boston lawyers, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, argued in the Harvard Law Review that privacy was under attack by "recent inventions and business methods." They contended that the pressures of modern society required the creation of a "right of privacy," which would help protect what they called "the right to be let alone."[3] Warren and Brandeis refused to believe that privacy had to die for technology to flourish. Today, the Warren/Brandeis article is regarded as one of the most influential law review articles ever published.[4] And the article's significance has increased with each passing year, as the technological invasions that worried Warren and Brandeis have become more commonplace.

Privacy-invasive technology does not exist in a vacuum, of course. That's because technology itself exists at a junction between science, the market, and society. People create technology to fill specific needs, real or otherwise. And technology is regulated, or not, as people and society see fit.

Few engineers set out to build systems designed to crush privacy and autonomy, and few businesses or consumers would willingly use or purchase these systems if they understood the consequences. What happens more often is that the privacy implications of a new technology go unnoticed. Or if the privacy implications are considered, they are misunderstood. Or if they are understood correctly, errors are made in implementation. In practice, just a few mistakes can turn a system designed to protect personal information into one that destroys our secrets.

How can we keep technology and the free market from killing our privacy? One way is by being careful and informed consumers. But I believe that government has an equally important role to play.



[3] Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, "The Right of Privacy," Harvard Law Review 4 (1890), 193. Although the phrase "the right to be let alone" is commonly attributed to Warren and Brandeis, the article attributes the phrase to the nineteenth-century judge Thomas M. Cooley.

[4] Turkington et al., Privacy: Cases and Materials.

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