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Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century | A 12 Year Retrospective

On January 28 2013, the USA, Canada and 27 countries of the European Union will “raise awareness of and generate discussion about data privacy rights and practices.”

Data Privacy Day caused me to reflect on a book I had read that fundamentally altered my view of the societal impact of technology (and not for the better).

Now I am admittedly slow, but after investigating the Social Computing phenomenon, I came to the sad realization that everything I had read in this Orwellian-style book had actually come to fruition. Prophets normally have the advantage of being dead long before their prognostications are proven to be wrong, which they usually are. But in this case, not only did the prophet live, he was actually right.

It was Twelve years ago that visionary author Simson Garfinkle, published “Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century.” Garfinkle’s book was a blistering indictment of technologies used by businesses to encroach on personal privacy and a wake-up call as to how little control we have over our own personal information.

Excerpt from “Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century”

“The future we’re rushing towards isn’t one where our every move is being watched and recorded by some all-knowing Big Brother. It is instead a future of a hundred kid brothers that constantly watch and interrupt our daily lives.

George Orwell thought that the communist system represented the ultimate threat to individual liberty. Over the next 50 years we will see new kinds of threats to privacy that don’t find their roots in totalitarianism, but in capitalism, the free market, advanced technology and the unbridled exchange of electronic information.

For decades, people have warned that pervasive databanks and surveillance technology are leading inevitably to the death of privacy and democracy. But these days, many people who hear the word “privacy” think about those kooks living off in the woods with their shotguns: these folks get their mail at post office boxes registered under assumed names, grow their own food, use cash to buy what they can’t grow for themselves, and constantly worry about being attacked by the Federal government – or space aliens. If you are not one of these people, you might well ask, “Why should I worry about my privacy? I have nothing to hide.”

The problem with this word “privacy” is that it falls short of conveying the really big picture. Privacy isn’t just about hiding things. It’s about self-possession, autonomy, and integrity. As we move into the computerized world of the twenty-first century, privacy will be one of our most important civil rights.

But this right of privacy isn’t the right of people to close their doors and pull down their window shades – perhaps because they want to engage in some sort of illicit or illegal activity. It’s the right of people to control what details about their lives stay inside their house and what leaks to the outside.”

We are all well aware that information is collected about us every day. Some of the methods are obvious and some, not so much. That is not at all surprising to anyone. It is an accepted “convenience” of modern technology.

However, what is very surprising and shocking is the amount of personal (oftentimes far too personal) information we willingly share on a regular basis. We fanatically update our Facebook pages and LinkedIn profiles daily. We “tweet” our lives out to the world in 140 character snippets with a minute-by-minute account of our activities and most intimate thoughts, provided in excruciating detail.

The analysis of what motivates this behavior is beyond the scope of this observation although there is a very interesting anthropological study here that I will investigate at a later time.

The point is that the frequency and quantity of personal information that we willingly share should be somewhat more concerning than it appears to be.

As Professor Garfinkle says “Why should I worry about my privacy? I have nothing to hide.” The problem with this word “privacy” is that it falls short of conveying the really big picture.

It appears that we may in fact, be missing “the really big picture.”

On Data Privacy Day 2010, Microsoft released the findings of a study, “Online Reputation in a Connected World.” The research examined the expanding role of online reputation in both professional and personal lives. It studied how recruiters and HR professionals use online reputational information in their candidate review processes, and how consumers feel about this use of their information.

The study concluded that 79 percent of United States hiring managers and job recruiters surveyed reviewed online information about job applicants. Most of those surveyed considered what they found online to impact their selection criteria. In fact, 70 percent of United States hiring managers in the study said they have rejected candidates based on what they found.

Microsoft commissioned another study for Data Privacy Day 2013 to explore the issue of privacy from the “data subjects” (consumers) perspective to gauge perceptions about how their information is used online, and produced a series of short videos to help people better manage their online privacy.

According to the results of the survey of 1,000 U.S. adults, people feel they have little to no control about how their data may be collected by online companies.

Heavy sigh! There are numerous high-visibility examples of companies that abuse the collection practices and use of personal information for financial gain but to say that we have little or no control is a classic case of our unwillingness to take responsibility for our own actions.

Social computing tools have provided a mechanism for us to recklessly abandon any modicum of modesty or self-restraint. These tools have facilitated a cultural revolution in society where, as Professor Garfinkle predicted, “advanced technology and the unbridled exchange of electronic personal information” has come to pass.

But more troubling, one where more oftentimes, we freely give it away.