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May 25, 2004

Databases and Privacy

Declan McCullough on the advantages of living in a database nation. Databases have streamlined the marketing and delivery of goods to the consumer, delivering everything from lower prices to faster and cheaper home loans:

Markets function more efficiently when it costs little to identify and deliver the right product to the right consumer at the right time. Data collection and information sharing emerged not through chance but because they bring lower prices and more choices for consumers. The ability to identify customers 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, Hollywood tells us that databases can be very dangerous. The truth is more complex. Being a citizen of a database nation, it turns out, can be very good for you.

Of course, the gathering and sharing of information also decreases privacy. And there is the risk of government abuse:

To curb these awesome powers, the usual response has been to place specific limits on what government agencies can do. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and laws such as the Privacy Act of 1974 restrict searches and information collection by the government. State constitutions also have long restricted government data collection.
In today’s world, halfway measures like the Privacy Act don’t go far enough to restrict government abuses. Enacted largely as a result of a federal report on automated data systems, the Privacy Act covers any government-operated "system of records" with personal information on American citizens. It limits the use and disclosure of those records and requires that the databases be protected with "appropriate administrative, technical and physical safeguards" to preserve their security and confidentiality. But Congress could never have envisioned the tremendous outsourcing of databases that has taken place during the last three decades. More and more, the private sector stores information on the feds’ behalf and the information in outsourced databases is not covered by the Privacy Act.

Interesting article. If you didn't catch this item on the unveiling of the new anti-terror database at the White House, it makes a good companion piece.

- Cassandra

May 25, 2004 at 07:59 AM | Permalink

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