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Database Nation by Simson Garfinkel

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Fighting Back

Privacy is certainly on the ropes in America today, but so was the environment in 1969. Thirty years ago, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire and Lake Erie was proclaimed dead. Times have certainly changed. Today it's safe to eat fish that are caught in the Cuyahoga, Lake Erie is alive again, and the overall environment in America is the cleanest it's been in decades.

There are signs around us indicating that privacy is getting ready to make a comeback as well. The war against privacy is commanding more and more attention in print, on television, and on the Internet. People are increasingly aware of how their privacy is compromised on a daily basis. Some people have begun taking simple measures to protect their privacy, measures like making purchases with cash and refusing to provide their Social Security numbers—or providing fake ones. And a small but growing number of people are speaking out for technology with privacy, and putting their convictions into practice by developing systems or services that protect, rather than attack, our privacy.

Over the past few decades, we've learned that technology is flexible, and that when it invades our privacy, the invasion is usually the result of a conscious choice. We now know, for instance, that when a representative from our bank says:

I'm sorry that you don't like having your Social Security number printed on your bank statement, but there is no way to change it.

that representative is actually saying:

Our programmers made a mistake by telling the computer to put your Social Security number on your bank statement, but we don't think it's a priority to change the program. Take your business elsewhere.

Today we are relearning this lesson and discovering how vulnerable business and government can be to public pressure. Consider these three examples from the past decade:

Lotus Development Corporation

In 1990, Lotus and Equifax teamed up to create a CD-ROM product called "Lotus Marketplace: Households" that would have included names, addresses, and demographic information on every household in the United States, so small businesses could do the same kind of target marketing that big businesses have been doing since the 1960s. The project was canceled when more than 30,000 people wrote to Lotus demanding that their names be taken out of the database.


In 1996, Lexis-Nexis suffered an embarrassing public relations debacle when it was revealed that their P-TRAK database service was publishing the Social Security numbers of most U.S. residents. Thousands of angry consumers called the company's switchboard, effectively shutting it down for a week. Lexis-Nexis discontinued the display of Social Security numbers 11 days after the product was introduced.

Social Security Administration (SSA)

In 1997, it was the U.S. Social Security Administration's turn to suffer the public's wrath. The press informed U.S. taxpayers that the SSA was making detailed tax history information about them available over the Internet. The SSA argued that its security provisions—requiring that taxpayers enter their name, date of birth, state of birth, and mother's maiden name—were sufficient to prevent fraud. But tens of thousands of Americans disagreed, several U.S. senators investigated the agency, and the service was promptly shut down. When the service was reactivated some months later, the detailed financial information could not be downloaded over the Internet.

Technology is not autonomous; it simply empowers choices made by government, business, and individuals. One of the big lessons of the environmental movement is that it's possible to shape these choices through the political process. This, I believe, justifies the involvement of government on the privacy question.

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