Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life

By Helen Nissenbaum | Go to book overview

2 Knowing Us Better than We
Know Ourselves: Massive
and Deep Databases

CONTRIBUTING TO THE EXTRAORDINARY POTENCY OF TECHNOLOGYbased systems for monitoring and tracking is the back-end capacity to store information captured by these systems, give meaning to it, and make it readily available for subsequent use. In the United States, these capabilities fueled early public privacy debates in the 1960s and 1970s on the increasing and potentially unlimited uses of computerized databases of personal information compiled by government and large private institutions (Westin 1967; Miller 1972; Burnham 1983; Regan 1995). As the technological possibilities have multiplied in power and complexity and the landscape of threat has become more diverse and sprawling, the debates have continued.

Crowning achievements in three areas of information science and technology have contributed to the landscape of threat. First, in the area of computerized databases, major scientific development, surges in processing power, and a plentiful supply of cheap computer memory have contributed to vastly improved capacities for storing, organizing, and retrieving great quantities of information. Simply put, this has meant that anything about an individual that can be rendered in digital form can be stored over indefinitely long periods of time and be readily retrieved. Second, rapid strides in the science and engineering of digital electronic communications networks, notably the Internet, the World Wide Web, and related wired and wireless networking technologies, have meant that large quantities of information can be moved around reliably and efficiently at lightning speed. As a result, not only can information

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