THE COMPUTER DATA BANK: WILL IT KILL YOUR FREEDOM? (Jun, 1968)

We also have a similar 1967 article by Arthur R. Miller, one of the people quoted in this article:
THE NATIONAL DATA CENTER AND PERSONAL PRIVACY (Nov, 1967)

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THE COMPUTER DATA BANK: WILL IT KILL YOUR FREEDOM?

All around the U.S., computer centers may be talking too much about everybody and everything

BY JACK STAR

LOOK SENIOR EDITOR Did your sister have an illegitimate baby when she was 15? Did you fail math in junior high? Are you divorced or living in a common-law relationship? Do you pay your bills promptly? Are you willing to talk to salesmen? Have you been treated for a venereal disease? Are you visiting a psychiatrist? Were you ever arrested? Have you taken an airplane trip in the past 90 days; with whom: and in which hotels did you stay?

The answers to these intimate questions and hundreds more like them have always been available to a persistent investigator with enough time and money to sift the paper trail we leave behind in file cabinets around the country. But now, for the first time, in this age of computers, it is becoming possible for any snooper to get such information quickly and cheaply, without leaving his office chair.

Since the early 1950′s, tens of thousands of computers have gone into service in America. Some keep track of payrolls and others mail out bills or help an architect design a skyscraper. Increasingly, hundreds of computers serve as data banks: electronic file cabinets with phenomenal memories and instant recall. Such banks can be located a great distance from their users—with information often fed into them from thousands of miles away or retrieved from thousands of miles away. There is nothing to keep a network of computers from being tied together by telephone lines that will link all their memories.

“Everybody is commencing to use such data centers,” warns Rep. Cornelius E. Gallagher (Dem., N.J.), whose Special Subcommittee on Invasion of Privacy has been worrying about this for the past two years.

“Computer data banks are at the same stage of development as the early railroads and the first telephone companies, which took a number of years to link themselves together in a nationwide network. Welfare departments, credit bureaus, hospitals, police departments and dozens of other institutions are putting their files into hundreds of relatively small data centers. No matter what you call them, they’re still data centers, and they can be linked.”

What bothers Representative Gallagher and Sen. Edward V. Long (Dem., Mo.), whose Subcommittee on Administrative Practice and Procedure has also been looking into the matter, is that the centers are emerging without any regulation or controls. “There are no safeguards,” complains Gallagher. “Nice people are putting these files together, and always for good purposes, but what we’re actually embarking on is the recording of every human transaction.”

(Our Social Security number has become the key in the registering of these billions of transactions: it accompanies every dividend payment or payroll check for recording in Internal Revenue’s giant computer banks, and it is used, possibly illegally, to record hundreds of other commercial and governmental activities. The armed forces are even phasing out serial numbers in favor of Social Security numbers; 400,000 sailors and marines now have only their Social Security numbers in military computer records.)

It disturbs Representative Gallagher and Senator Long that the information accumulating in computer files may be misused. “I don’t worry about today,” says Gallagher, “but how do we know who will be in power five or ten years from now? I’m concerned about fascism.”

Arthur R. Miller, professor of law at the University of Michigan, has said: “The computer, with its insatiable appetite for information, its ‘image’ of infallibility, its inability to forget anything that has been put into it, may become the heart of a surveillance system that will turn society into a transparent world in which our home, our finances, our associations, our mental and physical condition are bared to the most casual observer.”

The innocent American Airlines computer outside New York City typifies the problem. It is connected to 1,700 terminals with keyboards like an electric typewriter’s that can query the computer from every part of the continent. One hundred and twenty terminals are in the offices of travel agencies or large corporations. This computer system makes it possible for a traveler to get instant reservations and vastly improved service. It also, on occasion, invades his privacy.

American’s computer can be queried about any traveler’s movements in the past two or three months. In a furious burst of speed, the electric typewriter spews out a dossier: name, flights traveled, seat number, time of day, telephone contact, hotel reservation, car reservation, fellow travelers, etc.

Donald Moore, a computer expert for the airline, says that 10 to 15 investigators a day (Federal, state, local and others) are permitted to delve into the computer for such information. Some of them want (and get) a print-out of the entire passenger list of a certain flight to see who might be traveling with a particular person.

Although special coded numbers have to be fed into the computer to extract this data, Moore admits that an unscrupulous employee at any one of hundreds of distant points could come up with juicy material for a private detective or a divorce lawyer.

The next generation of computers, emerging in the early 1970′s, will make it easier and cheaper to put in data, and storage capacity will be far greater. Alan Westin, a Columbia University professor who has made a specialty of privacy problems, reports that a laser memory process will permit the storage of a 5,000-word dossier for each of 200 million Americans on a single, 4,800-foot reel of one-inch plastic computer tape. It would take no longer than four minutes to find an individual file, and a print-out would follow in moments.

This is something the experts should remember when they set up the new city and county data banks. Santa Clara County, Calif., for example, is compiling a computerized record of its million residents. The computer, in San Jose, will answer an inquiry from a remote terminal with the following information: name, age, address, birth record, drivers license data, voting and jury status, and property holdings. It will also call attention to any paper records on a person that might be on file at the county hospital, welfare office or police station.

“You’re damn right privacy is a concern of ours,” says Howard Campen, county executive. “If you want to see somebody’s police, welfare or hospital record, you have to go down to the police, welfare or county hospital and convince them you have a legal right to see those records.”

Such a disclaimer is not enough for men setting up other data banks. They are worried that the very knowledge a treasure trove of data exists will be enough to tempt the curious. “What we need is a Federal law to protect our files,” acknowledges Richard Simmons, Jr., director of the Mayor’s Committee for Human Resources Development, a Detroit agency that monitors antipoverty programs. Simmons’s agency has computerized the most intimate problems of 46,000 poor people in Detroit. The intent, he says, is not to keep a dossier on them but to make sure they are being properly served by the poverty programs. But, alas, what goes into the computer with an identifying name or number can be extracted from the computer by an investigator interested in a particular person. So far as he knows, says Simmons, this has not happened, but he agrees that the most stringent laws cannot always keep it from happening. (Witness the intimate disclosures from confidential records about Lee Harvey Oswald or the suspected killer of Martin Luther King.)

Advertised good intentions aren’t good enough when it comes to safeguarding files. Another social agency, in another city, virtuously proclaims it never knows whose IBM card is being processed for such sensitive items as arrests, school dropouts, evictions, etc. The enthusiastic guardian of this system assured me that punch cards bearing the name of a subject contain only an identifying number. These cards are always kept locked up, he said, when other cards with data on the individual, are being processed. Thus, it is impossible to link a man’s name to the data about him in the files. When I asked to be shown, the guardian twirled the dial of his safe with a flourish and extracted some keys. Then he went into the data-processing room, where he flushed pink as we saw both sets of files already out of their cabinets and being processed at the same time. “How the hell did this happen?” asked my embarrassed guide.

Urban data banks will greatly improve city life, but they will also pose privacy problems. Example: New Haven, Conn., which is working with IBM researchers to set up what may become a model for computerized cities. When a fire alarm rings in New Haven, a computer printer at the firehouse will type out an entire information file about the burning building even while the firemen are sliding down the pole: What sort of a store is on the first floor? Any paint or varnish stored there? Sprinkler system? Skylights? Apartments upstairs? Any invalids or children? Then the computer automatically notifies the electric company to shut off power and the police to block the street.

New Haven’s computer will record a great deal more data than the one in San Jose—detailed welfare files, current school grades of children, hospital-clinic records of welfare patients, etc. Because of this, City Controller Kennedy Mitchell, who is helping to set up the system, wants to make it a felony for anyone to misuse the computer. To minimize abuses, he and the IBM planners are thinking of furnishing city employees with small metallic identity cards, changed every month, that would operate the computer. They would be imprinted with magnetic codings permitting a social worker to turn on her terminal keyboard and get from the computer any one of the scores of files on her own welfare clients, but not those belonging to another worker. Nor would she be able to check computerized police, school or hospital records except by calling up those agencies.

The New Haven planners are taking advantage of the accessibility of remote computers to Touch-Tone telephones. A policeman in his squad car could telephone the computer and tap out the license number of an apparently abandoned car on his telephone keyboard, to determine if it had been stolen. A doctor awakened at night to make an emergency call at the home of a welfare patient he had never visited before could telephone the computer, tap out the patient’s identity number and get a voice-recorded abstract of the patient’s medical history.

All these uses may be salutary, but they also threaten privacy. At the RAND Corporation, a research organization that does much top-secret work for the armed forces, several scientists are greatly concerned about these emerging problems. Computer expert Paul Baran says: “All remote terminals are connected by phone lines, and these can be tapped, If you have a friend at the police, he’ll get you a criminal record. As for categories of sensitivity and compartmentalization of data, when you have a large number of people having access to a system and different files, you soon get people trading information.”

It is Baran’s belief that “records are a valuable commodity—make the reward great enough, and they’ll be sold.” This is also the view of Dr. Kerr . White, professor of medical care at Johns Hopkins University, who says: “I have been told that, in some large cities, access to any medical record can be obtained, if you pay enough.”

Dr. White has begun a major study of the computerized medical histories of 955,344 residents of Saskatchewan, where most transactions under the provincial medical-care plans are computer-recorded. Dr. White says he doesn’t know the names of the patients or their doctors—all he gets is a code designation. In Regina, the capital, the identities are known, and the computer periodically sifts through the rec ords to see which doctors are “deviating from acceptable standards.” Dr. Robert G. Murray, chairman of the Medical Care Insurance Commission, says: “But as far as the patients go, nobody—and I mean nobody —gets their records. Not without an order from the attorney general.” Yet he acknowledges that there is a temptation for the inquisitive to probe: “We have had to fight off our Internal Revenue.”

Several U.S. hospitals are already computerizing their operations, and it will be a matter of only two or three years before regional medical data banks open for business. The benefits will be great. Suppose a Chicago traveling salesman suffered a heart attack in New York. All of his previous medical records, including electrocardiograms, could be transmitted instantly from a data bank in Chicago. Such information might well save his life. But that information, if extracted from the computer by an unscrupulous person, might also destroy him.

The same potential for evil lurks in the police computers being acquired by many cities, even though they promise to make life harder for criminals. By the end of the year, all 50 states and Canada will be connected to the FBI computers in Washington, which currently store data on 20,367 wanted persons; 152,792 stolen, missing and recovered guns; 168,006 stolen vehicles; 88,022 stolen articles bearing identifying numbers; and 45,306 license plates.

A Texas state trooper driving along a lonely road many miles from his police station can now radio the number of a car with suspicious-looking occupants to his headquarters in Austin, where an operator can in turn query the FBI computers. Instantly, an unbelievable batch of information pours back out of the printer: The license belongs to a car stolen in California; description of car; car was used in a robbery; descriptions or names of the suspected bandits, and sometimes even their fingerprint classifications. The computer provides other help too. In the past, when a policeman found a television set or other identifiable merchandise in the trunk of an out-of-state car, it was almost impossible for him to determine if it had been stolen. Now, he can learn in seconds if it was stolen anywhere in North America.

FBI officials deny there is any intent to feed dossiers into their computers, but others are apprehensive. Paul Baran of RAND says: “What discourages the FBI from storing dossiers is the high cost. But soon, it will be much easier and cheaper to store such information” Professor Westin of Columbia has testified before a Senate committee: “…The FBI National Crime Information Center has never been the subject, to my knowledge, of any congressional review …no official of the FBI has ever been brought before a congressional committee… to explain where the FBI plans to go with its computerization___”

A number of states have computers communicating with the FBI’s, but so far, the only one that stores dossiers is New York’s. The New York State Identification and Intelligence System has already put into its computer 540,000 of its six million fingerprint records. It also stores information on associates of crime-syndicate figures.

The problems of keeping such information confidential are tremendous (police files are notorious for their leakage to credit and insurance investigators) . Any of New York State’s 3,600 criminal-justice agencies—including 611 police departments, justice of the peace courts and district attorneys—has access to the files, and their invasion is inevitable.

One fingerprint record I saw being checked in Albany illustrated the problem: A man had been arrested in New York on a charge of second-degree assault. His fingerprints arrived on a facsimile machine and were checked in the files. The man’s “record” went back, again via facsimile, to the New York police. Perhaps it is nobody’s business that the man had only been fingerprinted before because he happened to apply for a job in a state hospital and, at another time, visited his brother in a state prison. There would also have been a “record” if he had ever been an inmate of a state mental hospital, was inducted into the armed services from New York, had applied for a banking license, liquor license or pistol permit, or had worked as a cabaret entertainer or taxi driver. All these details might prove of great interest to someone not in law enforcement, or a policeman without the need to know.

You don’t have to be a policeman to use the contents of private intelligence banks, which operate without any controls at all. A New Jersey firm has assembled computerized dossiers on thousands of doctors for the use of pharmaceutical salesmen who call at their offices. Besides listing public information on the doctor—his education and type of practice—the computer supplies “private information” gleaned from the drug companies: the doctor’s prescribing habits, his willingness to see drug salesmen and whether or not he likes to get samples.

The rapid computerization of credit-company files is leading to a national network, with ready information on nearly every family. The 4,200 credit bureaus and collection agencies that belong to Associated Credit Bureaus of America, Inc., are starting to draw on the computers of their associates in Dallas, Houston, Chicago and other cities. By 1970, there will be at least ten interconnected computer credit centers in major metropolitan areas. Large department stores will have direct connections to the computers.

Besides financial information, memory banks are able to paint a sociological picture of divorces, lawsuits and other “derogatory” so-called “public information.” Sometimes, the information can be misleading. It is easy for the credit bureaus to record filed lawsuits, but expensive for them to note their disposition. The Credit Bureau of Greater New York, which is as yet uncomputerized, has files on 8.5 million people and records 780,000 items a year affecting their reputations. But 500,000 of these items are lawsuits, whose disposition never gets recorded.

The Associated Credit Bureaus’ customers include not just business firms but also the Internal Revenue Service, the FBI, the Veterans Administration and other Government agencies. Local police draw on the files in some cases without even paying for the privilege. Michigan’s Prof. Arthur R. Miller says credit bureaus are “a ready source of detailed information about an individual’s finances and many aspects of his private life, making accuracy of the records crucial; an honest dispute between a consumer and a retailer over a bill may produce an unexplicated and practically unexpungible ‘no pay’ evaluation in the computer network that can be flashed to an inquirer anywhere in the country.”

Should personal information we confide for a single purpose—say to buy a television set on time payments or to get a bank loan—be used for another purpose? Some of Associated Credit Bureaus’ members welcome the computer as a means of sifting their files to find persons in certain income brackets and with consumer needs, in order to sell the names to various businesses as prospective customers. Government agencies, and others, use the files to see what sort of persons we are. Credit Data Corp., which has computerized records of nearly 24 million Americans, is currently battling Internal Revenue’s attempts to examine its files. “What Internal Revenue has demanded,” says Dr. H. C. Jordan, company president, “does pose a threat to the individual’s privacy.”

While computers rarely make mistakes, the people programming them do. John W. Joanis, president of Sentry Insurance, says that his company’s computers are wrong two to three percent of the time. He recalls: “One day, we canceled 8,000 homeowner and auto policies. Our policyholders were outraged. It was a programming error.”

Joanis’s advice to persons who use computers: “The computer should be a triggering device rather than a decision maker. It shouldn’t be allowed to cancel insurance policies, for instance. When the computer comes up with derogatory information, it should be up to a human to make the decisions.”

In the past two years, there has been much discussion about setting up a national data center in Washington. The center would incorporate computer records of 21 Federal agencies, including the Census Bureau and Internal Revenue. Critics denounced the plan on the grounds that, in effect, dossiers would be kept on every American. Because of congressional criticism, the plan is being revamped so that national statistics can be used to better advantage, but without invading privacy.

However, a caution about the data center comes from Burton E. Squires, Jr., assistant professor of computer sciences at Pennsylvania State University: “… If the Internal Revenue Service is allowed access to the census data, and if the Federal Bureau of Investigation is allowed access to social security data, and so forth, or if these data are contained on magnetic tape so that they can be easily transmitted from one Government computer installation to another…. Then such a data center could come into existence in effect even if not in name….”

How do we keep the computer from divulging information to persons not entitled to it? A congressional committee asked this of Dr. Emanuel R. Piore, vice president and chief scientist of IBM. His answer is simple: “One day… a user will probably be able to identify himself to a computer by letting the machine verify his voice or his thumbprint or his signature. But… in the end, preservation of privacy… will still depend upon people: operators, service personnel, supervising officers and all those who decide what information to put into a computer and how to use it.”

There is a prophetic quality in Dr. Piore’s warning: “Machines have no morals, no ethics; men have ethics and morals. A machine is an idiot device, and it does what people tell it to do.”

10 comments
  1. Jerry says: June 6, 20088:49 am

    Admirably prescient. I don’t think any of the issues raised in this article have been solved in the last 40 years.

  2. Al Bear says: June 6, 20088:57 am

    Awesome article! and man, everything is so true.

  3. Torgo says: June 6, 20085:10 pm

    That’s an amazing core-memory illustration.

  4. Barry Berlin says: June 6, 20085:15 pm

    Thank goodness these wild ideas never came to fruition. Imagine how awful the world would be with so much computing power trampling on our rights. I for one am proud to be protected by my government here in the USA,

  5. Charlie says: June 6, 20085:16 pm

    Torgo: Wow, I didn’t even realize what that illustration was. Very cool!

  6. Eliyahu says: June 6, 20086:05 pm

    We used to laugh back in the 1960s when our teachers told us “this is going on your permanent record”, because we knew that our “permanent record” wouldn’t follow any further than our promotion from Junior High School. Little did we realize that the day would come when we were at risk for having everything we do become a part of a permanent record; a day when no one could ever put any mistakes behind him or get a fresh start by relocating.

  7. LightningRose says: June 9, 20082:54 pm

    I was in High School when this article was published, and concerns like these are largely what drew me into computer science in college. I figured if I knew how to program computers, I’d have a better chance at defeating them.

    The paranoia endemic during the Nixon administration didn’t help any either.

  8. Noam says: March 13, 20101:13 pm

    >>I for one am proud to be protected by my government here in the USA,

    I honestly cannot even tell if that is a serious comment or sarcasm.

  9. Richard says: July 1, 20103:55 pm

    @ Noam – Sometimes the line between the two is imperceptible… especially when politics gets so far out there it’s beyond parody.

  10. Nikola says: October 20, 201010:39 am

    Facebook comes to mind…

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