[lit-ideas] Reason Magazine's issue on the database nation

  • From: "Mohammad Al-Ubaydli" <mo@xxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 2 Jun 2004 07:11:59 -0400

Dear all,
two more emails about articles that I found interesting, and then I go back=
 to skulking again. The first one is about this month's issue of Reason mag=

The entire subscription cost was worth it because of the effect of the issu=
e's cover on my fiancee - she had gone to pick up the mail, and ws horrifie=
d to see that the cover contained a satellite photograph of our neighborhoo=
d, and, in big font, "MOHAMMAD AL-UBAYDLI They Know Where You Are!". (Her f=
irst reaction was apparently "What's he done _now_?")

In other words, to illustrate how cheap it was to get and customize informa=
tion on and for anyone, the magazine's staff created a custom cover for eve=
ry single subscriber. The cover had a photograph of the subscriber's area (=
based on their zip code), text with the subscriber's name, adverts for the =
subscriber's profile (I'm not sure how, but they had me pretty figured), an=
d political adverts that mentioned which way my area's Congress representat=
ive had voted on any particular issue.

The issue's main article is worth reading as it discusses the numerous _adv=
antages_ of Americans' loss of privacy:


Welcome to the database nation, where the tiny chunk of data that represent=
s your physical address can pull up an overhead view and driving directions=
 to your front door. And that=92s not all. When your address is linked to d=
atabases like those used by Yahoo! People Search, your phone number may be =
readily accessible. Your county government=92s Web site probably displays y=
our home=92s floor plan and assessed value, letting nosy neighbors chuckle =
over Alice=92s quaint split-level or Bob=92s lack of elbow room when the in=
-laws visit. Pay-as-you-go databases like Lexis-Nexis=92 P-TRAK, P-FIND, an=
d P-SEEK tie together mortgage records, vehicle registrations, court judgme=
nts, bankruptcy histories, and any other public information they can gather=
. Google and Yahoo! can record every search you=92ve ever made and link it =
to whatever computer you used at the time. Credit card companies know what =
you buy, frequent shopper programs know what you eat, and your insurance co=
mpany knows what medical procedures you=92ve undergone.

Is it any wonder that public concern about privacy has risen dramatically d=
uring the last decade? Self-help and advocacy books abound, with titles lik=
e I Love the Internet But I Want My Privacy Too! and Privacy for Sale: How =
Big Brother and Others Are Selling Your Private Secrets for Profit. Hundred=
s of privacy-related bills have been proposed in the U.S. Congress and stat=
e legislatures. In a February 2003 Harris poll, 69 percent of those surveye=
d agreed that "consumers have lost all control over how personal informatio=
n is collected and used by companies." That view was summed up with cynical=
 certitude by Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy. "You have zero privacy an=
yway," he said a few years ago. "Get over it."

What McNealy didn=92t mention, and polls and politicians don=92t recognize,=
 is the unsung benefits that have accompanied the databasification of Ameri=
can society. More precisely, they=92re unacknowledged or invisible benefits=
. It=92s easy to complain about a subjective loss of privacy. It=92s more d=
ifficult to appreciate how information swapping accelerates economic activi=
ty. Like many other aspects of modern society, benefits are dispersed, amou=
nting to a penny saved here or a dollar discounted there. But those sums ad=
d up quickly.

Markets function more efficiently when it costs little to identify and deli=
ver the right product to the right consumer at the right time. Data collect=
ion and information sharing emerged not through chance but because they bri=
ng lower prices and more choices for consumers. The ability to identify cus=
tomers who are not likely to pay their bills lets stores offer better deals=
 to those people who will. In films like The Net and Changing Lanes, Hollyw=
ood tells us that databases can be very dangerous. The truth is more comple=
x. Being a citizen of a database nation, it turns out, can be very good for=


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