Dangers of a giant national database -- article from 1967 was eerily prescient

"The National Data Center and Personal Privacy," an article published in the Atlantic in November, 1967, was eerily prescient in its predictions of the coming data-mining panopticon and the resulting loss of civil liberties. It was written by Arthur Miller, but not the guy who wrote The Crucible.

But such a Data Center poses a grave threat to individual freedom and privacy. With its insatiable appetite for information, its inability to forget anything that has been put into it, a central computer might become the heart of a government surveillance system that would lay bare our finances, our associations, or our mental and physical health to government inquisitors or even to casual observers. Computer technology is moving so rapidly that a sharp line between statistical and intelligence systems is bound to be obliterated. Even the most innocuous of centers could provide the “foot in the door” for the development of an individualized computer-based federal snooping system...

Any increase in the amount of recorded information is certain to increase the risk of errors in reporting and recording and indexing. Information distortion also will be caused by machine malfunctioning. Moreover, people working with the data in Washington or at a distance through remote terminals can misuse the information. As information accumulates, the contents of an individual’s computerized dossier will appear more and more impressive and will impart a heightened sense of reliability to the user, which, coupled with the myth of computer infallibility, will make it less likely that the user will try to verify the recorded data. This will be true despite the “softness” or “imprecision” of much of the data. Our success or failure in life ultimately may turn on what other people decide to put into our files and on the programmer’s ability, or inability, to evaluate, process, and interrelate information. The great bulk of the information likely to find its way into the center will be gathered and processed by relatively unskilled and unimaginative people who lack discrimination and sensitivity. Furthermore, a computerized file has a certain indelible quality – adversities cannot be overcome simply by the passage of time.

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