Privacy and Power: Computer Databases and Metaphors for Information Privacy

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We are in the midst of an information revolution, and we are only beginning to understand its implications. In the past decade, we have undergone a dramatic transformation in the way we shop, bank, and go about our daily business--changes that have resulted in an unprecedented proliferation of records and data.(l) The small details that were once captured in dim memories or fading scraps of paper are now preserved forever in the digital minds of computers, vast databases with fertile fields of personal data. Our wallets are stuffed with ATM cards, calling cards, frequent shopper cards, and credit cards--all of which can be used to record where we are and what we do. Every day, rivulets of information stream into electric brains to be sifted, sorted, rearranged, and combined in hundreds of different ways. Technology enables the preservation of the minutia of our everyday comings and goings, of our likes and dislikes, of who we are and what we own. Companies are constructing gigantic databases of psychological profiles, amassing data about an individual's race, gender, income, hobbies, and purchases. It is ever more possible to create an electronic collage that covers much of a person's life--a life captured in records, a digital biography composed in the collective computer networks of the world.

Since their creation, computer databases have been viewed as problematic--a fear typically raised under the mantra of "privacy."(2) Databases certainly present a privacy problem, but what exactly is the nature of that problem? Although the problem of databases is understood as one of concern over privacy, beyond this, the problem is often not well defined. How much weight should our vague apprehensions be given, especially considering the tremendous utility, profit, and efficiency of using databases? The answer to this question depends upon how the privacy problem of databases is conceptualized. Unfortunately, so far, the problem has not been adequately articulated.

Journalists,(3) politicians,(4) and jurists(5) often describe the problem created by databases with the metaphor of Big Brother--the harrowing totalitarian government portrayed in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.(6) For example, in 1974, when the use of computer databases was in its infancy, Justice Douglas observed:

   With dossiers being compiled by commercial credit bureaus, state and local
   law enforcement agencies, the CIA, the FBI, the IRS, the Armed Services,
   and the Census Bureau, we live in an Orwellian age in which the computer
   has become "the heart of a surveillance system that will turn society into
   a transparent world."(7)

Legal academics similarly characterize the problem.(8) In The Culture of Surveillance, William Staples observes that we have internalized Big Brother--we have created a Big Brother culture, where we all act as agents of surveillance and voyeurism.(9) "The specter of Big Brother has haunted computerization from the beginning," Abbe Mowshowitz observes. "Computerized personal record-keeping systems, in the hands of police and intelligence agencies, clearly extend the surveillance capabilities of the state."(10)

Even when not directly discussing Big Brother, commentators describe the problem in similar conceptual terms. Paul Schwartz and Joel Reidenberg write:

   [Computer) data processing creates a potential for suppressing a capacity
   for free choice. The more that is known about an individual, the easier it
   is to force his obedience. Through the use of databanks, the state and
   private organizations can transform themselves into omnipotent parents and
   the rest of society into helpless children.(11)

Commentators have adapted the Big Brother metaphor to describe the threat to privacy caused by private sector databases, often referring to private sector entities as "Little Brothers."(12) As David Lyon puts it: "Orwell's dystopic vision was dominated by the central state. …