Seisint. Acxiom. ChoicePoint. LexisNexis. Elensys. MATRIX. DoubleClick. Searchspace. Viisage. VeriChip. BioPay. If you aren't familiar with most of those names, it wouldn't be too surprising. You might be surprised, though, at how intimately familiar many of them are with you.
Welcome to the dark and disturbing side of the computer revolution. While everyone reading this is enjoying the benefits of the technology, computers also allow for unprecedented data collecting and storage that goes beyond what many individuals can conceive of.
No Place to Hide, by Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow Jr, gives readers a peek into that dark side. Identified as their financial and privacy reporter, the book offers a more detailed look into what he's seen and heard over the course of covering that beat.
No Place to Hide immediately immerses the reader into the eerie yet tantalizing world of the information industry. Focusing primarily on initiatives that are rooted in the post-9/11 security panic, it provides a look into what the information industry collects about us, and with whom it shares it. Sometimes explicitly spelled out, sometimes requiring a thoughtful reader's inferential or deductive skills to uncover, the revelations relating to how little privacy individuals really have are sobering to contemplate. For example, even unlisted telephone numbers routinely make their way into databases, which are then sold and used by corporations and government agencies alike. How many of us know that when we fill out health-screening surveys or call to get "free" health information, the information we give gets put into a database? Do you think that by scrambling your Social Security Number when you give it out, you're monkey-wrenching the databases? Thanks to Non-Obvious Relationship Awareness (NORA), you're not.
Even more disturbing is the callousness of the people creating these data-hungry systems. O'Harrow relates the formation of the MATRIX database by Seisint, and states of the team doing the work, "They had neither the time nor the inclination to think about congressional debates, political trade-offs, and privacy concerns." (p. 104) Here's another telling quotation:
Lest one be tempted to think that a company's so-called privacy officer is a consumer's advocate within the company, that notion is shown false as well:
O'Harrow also documents the increasingly blurred line between government and private efforts, as many information companies willingly sell their databases to state and federal agencies under the justification of "homeland security" or other law enforcement "needs". The development of the MATRIX system is an excellent case study of this phenomenon.
Stories offer a personal way of making these data-driven nightmare scenarios more real, and O'Harrow includes several. Tucked within them are unsettling revelations, as well. In one story on a man's quest to deal with his identity theft by a murderer, we learn that companies are often so lax about security in their zeal to get more customer dollars that they will approve credit applications even though they have information the company knows, or can easily discover, to be inaccurate on them.
The good guys -- EPIC and CASPIAN, to name two organizations -- also get coverage in No Place to Hide, but since the focus is on the increasing lack of privacy, there's much less attention given them. Similarly, O'Harrow doesn't offer any vision of how to try to thwart the increasing databasification of our lives -- he's simply telling readers what he's seen over his years of covering privacy issues. That's perhaps the weakest element of No Place to Hide, as it is sometimes rambling and repetitious. O'Harrow also seems to focus most on the corporate-government melding and its privacy implications; he doesn't address other privacy issues, such as internet information-gathering, the use of RFID chips to track products and people, or how credit, debit, "loyalty", and gift cards track users, and possibly even link them to other individuals in databases.
Despite these shortcomings, No Place to Hide is currently the best snapshot of the industry behind the information gathering and selling. O'Harrow quotes a Seisint brochure touting the MATRIX system: "When enough seemingly insignificant data is analyzed against billions of data elements, the invisible become visible." (p. 108) With
No Place to Hide, he's providing a similar service -- making the largely-invisible information industry and their workings more visible to the consumers whose information feeds their databases and profits. For those who are just now realizing that the increased convenience of online shopping and other computer-driven advances has come with huge, but largely hidden prices, No Place to Hide is an excellent starting point for learning more.