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Section 11.8 Special Topic: Databases and Personal Privacy

During a typical day we all come in contact with lots of electronic databases that store information about us. If you use a supermarket discount card, every purchase you make is logged against your name in the supermarket's database. When you use your bank card at the ATM machine, your financial transaction is logged against your account. When you charge gasoline or buy dinner, those transactions are logged against your credit card account. If you visit the doctor or dentist, a detailed record of your visit is transmitted to your medical insurance company's database. If you receive a college loan, detailed financial information about you is entered into several different credit service bureaus. And so on.

“data brokers”

Should we be worried about how this information is used? Many privacy advocates say yes. With the computerization of medical records, phone records, financial transactions, driving records, browser and social media activities and many other records, there is an enormous amount of personal information held in databases. At the same time, there are pressures from a number of sources for access to this information. Law-enforcement agencies want to use this information to monitor individuals. Corporations want to use it to help them market their products. Political organizations want to use it to help them market their candidates.

The development of online databases serve many useful purposes. They help fight crime and reduce the cost of doing business. They help improve government and commercial services on which we have come to depend. On the other hand, databases can be and have been misused. They can be used by unauthorized individuals or agencies or in unauthorized ways. When they contain inaccurate information, they can cause personal inconvenience or even harm.

There are a number of organizations that have sprung up to address the privacy issues raised by online databases. If you're interested in learning more about this issue, a good place to start would be the Web site maintained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) 1 .

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www.epic.org/