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Database Nation by Simson Garfinkel

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Our Databanked Future

And what if we look in the other direction? Looking forward, we can see a future in which technology will increasingly be used to limit ambiguity. Anything that can be known will be known, and it will be known to a greater degree of precision than was ever thought possible. Left to its own devices, it's quite likely that business will repeat the mistakes of the past, designing systems that are fundamentally unfair, undemocratic, and unaccountable.

Back in 1965, the United States government stood at a computational crossroads. On the table was a proposal to create a massive government database. But when details of the project reached the public, the project was terminated. Instead, the U.S. Congress held hearings on the threat of computers to privacy, a U.S. government commission formulated the idea of data protection, and a (relatively) small part of the U.S. government's executive branch was given the mission to enforce a new set of laws.

We blew it. A national database could have headed off the excesses of the credit reporting industry. If the system had allowed strong user controls, or had avenues for redress, it further could have prevented the sea of errors that exist in the plethora of private databanks today. Moreover, with a public system, uses of the data for purposes other than those originally intended would have been debated in public, rather than proposed and approved behind closed doors.

Today, we stand at another computational crossroads. We are ...

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