The longue durée of computer surveillance

Most discourses on technology are characterised by a strange eternal recurrence of the same, even as they are always hailing the new. In itself this should be no surprise: thinking on technology tends towards futurist or presentist—as opposed to historical—modes for good reason. And though constant change obviously characterises the technical realm, the deep nature of technological structures does not itself change all that quickly: it is too constrained by the social forms within which those structures develop. But it is always worth noting the echoes from the past of what one might take to be peculiar to the current predicament. The present can turn out to have lasted for much longer than one expects.

People have conceptualised computers as creepy surveillance tools for decades, and for obvious reasons. States and businesses have self-evident interests in gathering data on citizens, employees, customers, clients, enemies: scientia potentia est, so goes the cliché. And the Hollerith punch card that enables you to process that data automatically, and at higher speed than clerical staff working manually, can mean all the more scientia.

In the 1940s US census data, stored on punch cards, was used to track down Japanese Americans for internment. By the 1970s, TRW—a corporation with interests in aerospace, automotion, electronics, computation and data processing—was gathering unnerving masses of data on tens of millions of US consumers, for sale to potential creditors. Unsurprisingly, given its range of operations, TRW was intimately entwined with the CIA. “Just how much pressure would the chairman of the board and chief executive officer of TRW have to bring on the vice-president in charge of the company’s information division for the CIA to gain access to credit reports stored in the division’s computers?” asked New York Times journalist David Burnham in his 1980 book Rise of the Computer State, more than three decades before the Snowden revelations.

Here are some paragraphs from Burnham’s book, which can seem remarkably prescient:

Most US commentary on computers has tended to be laudatory, in part because of the widely shared perception that the machines are essential to the continued growth of the American economy. A few critics, nevertheless, have sought to examine the dark side of computers, often aiming their fire at the somewhat narrow question of personal privacy.

In response to these criticisms and the increased public awareness of government surveillance that grew out of the Watergate scandals of President Richard Nixon, Congress enacted a handful of narrowly drawn laws. One statute imposed restrictions on the use of personal information by federal agencies. Another permitted Americans to see and challenge the information collected about them by credit reporting firms. A third established a secret court that authorizes the FBI to install bugs and taps against espionage suspects.

Despite this flurry of legislative activity, Americans frequently discount the importance, in the phrase of one Supreme Court decision, of being left alone. “I have nothing to hide,” many respectable citizens reply when asked whether they fear the increased intensity of all kinds of surveillance made possible by the computer. And they often seem unaware that personal privacy has been considered a valuable asset for many centuries and is not just a faintly hysterical fad of the age of technology.

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to the other,” Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities. “A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret, that every beating heart in the hundreds of breasts there is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it.”

Privacy, however, is far more than the aesthetic pleasure of Charles Dickens. And the gradual erosion of privacy is not just the unimportant imaginings of fastidious liberals. Rather, the loss of privacy is a key symptom of one of the fundamental social problems of our age: the growing power of large public and private institutions in relation to the individual citizen. […]

In what concrete ways does the computer enlarge the power of public and private organizations over the individual citizen?

Computers and telecommunications enormously enhance the ability of organizations to collect, store, collate and distribute all kinds of information about virtually all of the 232 million people of the United States. Computers have allowed far more organizations to have far more access to far more people at far less cost than ever was possible in the age of the manual file and the wizened file clerk.

The computer thus has wrought a fundamental change in American life by encouraging the physical migration of information about the most minute details of our personal and public lives into the computerized files of a large and growing number of corporations, government bureaucracies, trade associations and other institutions. As recently as the end of World War II, much of this information would not have been collected at all, but would instead have been stashed away in our homes. Even when it was collected, it rarely was subject to casual inspection because of the considerable expense involved in paying the salaries of the clerks needed to retrieve any particular item. Computerization has now greatly reduced this economic disincentive to inspect the files.

In addition to allowing large organizations to collect large amounts of detailed information, computers and the linked telecommunication networks have considerably enlarged the ability of these organizations to track the daily activities of individual citizens.

Many computer scientists, government officials and business executives take comfort in the observation that during the last few years in the United States little concrete evidence has emerged suggesting current widespread abuse of these interlocked systems. But history tells us nothing if not that all bureaucracies seek to maximise their powers. […]

The most immediate example of this important lesson, which optimistic Americans are already pushing from their minds, was the illegal and improper government surveillance of hundreds of thousands of citizens suspected of political activism during the last quarter of a century at the direction of three separate presidents. The Kennedy administration initiated a far-reaching effort to keep track of civil-rights activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King. This surveillance ultimately involved the placement of electronic bugs in the motels where King stayed as he moved about the country and the subsequent effort to peddle the secretly recorded material to newspaper columnists. During the Johnson administration, concern about race riots, civil-rights demonstrations and antiwar protests prompted the president to order the army to greatly enlarge its surveillance of citizens, almost all of whom were only exercising the right to speak their minds. The surveillance led to the creation of intelligence files on about 100,000 persons (including Catholic priests and one US senator) and on an equal number of domestic organizations (for example, the National Organization for Women, the John Birch Society and the NAACP). President Johnson ordered the CIA to undertake a similar surveillance program of citizens even though it violated the law approved by Congress when the agency was initially established. During the Nixon administration, the president knowingly encouraged the White House staff to violate the law by obtaining the computerized tax files on individuals Mr. Nixon did not like. This action served as the basis for one of the proposed articles of impeachment drawn up against Mr. Nixon by the House Judiciary Committee shortly before he resigned.

Telecommunications equipment and computers have tended to centralize the power held by the top officials in both government and private industry. Computer experts often reject this complaint. They contend that the rapid growth in the use of personal computers by millions of American citizens will cancel out the increases in power the large organizations. This defense has a surface plausibility. But when the vast capital, expertise and manpower available to the large government and business organizations are compared to the capital, expertise and available working time of even the most favored individual, the personal computer does not appear to be a great equalizer. Furthermore, who controls what information is stored in the great data bases of the United States and who serves as the gatekeeper to most of the giant communications networks?

Is it reasonable to believe that a dedicated band of environmentalists, sending electronic smoke signals via their home terminals, really will be able to effectively match the concentrated power of a giant oil company or committed government agency? Can it really be argued that the personal computers and word processors now being purchased for more and more corporate employees and government officials will enhance their personal freedom? Or will the equipment, while increasing individual output, also allow a level of automated surveillance unknown to any previous age? Certainly the large airlines have spent hundreds of millions of dollars installing computer terminals to help their clerks sell tickets. But how many of the airlines are installing terminals in the homes of stockholders, or even of members of the board of governors, to give them more information about the internal operations of the company so they can exercise more effective control?

Max Weber, the brilliant German sociologist, discussed the question in terms of organizational power long before the great organizations of the world had equipped themselves with computers. “The bureaucratic structure goes hand in hand with the concentration of the material means of management in the hands of the master,” he wrote in an essay published before World War I. “This concentration occurs, for example, in the development of big capitalist enterprises, which find their essential characteristics in the process. A corresponding process occurs in public organizations.”

But massive data bases, the ability to track large numbers of individuals and the concentration of power are not the only contributions of the computer. It also increases the influence of the major bureaucracies by giving these organizations a method by which they can anticipate the probable future thoughts and activities of groups of people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *