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.



  1. 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.

    At the very least, he seems to have foresaw wikipedia.

  2. this seems to be a particularly strong obsession of Cory´s. Regrettably, in a country where databases like those described above have been implemented for 40 yars, the worries cannot be confirmed. YES, we do have breaches of privacy – done by the “PET” (aka CIA) WITHOUT using the central database system. As I stated earlier, the database makes danish cancer research uniquely thorough, and envied among colleagues abroad.
    I also note the closing paragraph: “a computerized file has a certain indelible quality — adversities cannot be overcome simply by the passage of time.”
    I would think that this would rather apply to paper files, but I could be wrong of course.

  3. C.D. said, “…was eerily prescient…”

    Do you really believe in prescience? “Knowledge of actions or events before they occur; foresight.” Or are you just throwing the word around? Was it just a guess, or a vision, or a logic train (logical prediction that can be made when you’re on the right track)? The thing about Prescience, says F.Herbert, is that it is more about the power to see and then make the future happen, than to just see it.

  4. According to NASA, giant Solar Flares are coming in a few years, and never before has so much human activity been so dependent on the electronics that are vulnerable to the massive potential disturbances of Earth’s magnetic field the Sun can cause. Severe enough flares could easily erase all the data stored on all the hard drives on the day side of the planet when a flare hits. If this happens, surveillance and databases are the least of our problems.


  5. Very far-sighted.

    What worries me is how accepting people are. Not only of giant databases that are starting to link up. But also of cctv cameras everywhere, companies snooping on employees etc etc. It’s all building up into a rather frightening picture. Orwellian, indeed.

    If you said to someone, in say 1948, that your bank details, private letters, and personal movements were known to, and recorded by various goverment agencies, thay would have been horrified. Yet we calmly accept it. Or that your employer might expect to take blood samples from you, open any mail sent to you at work etc. Sheeeesh.

    My employers are sending out new contracts to people soon. I’m going to be taking a real close look at mine. If it includes an corporate nazi shit, I may well tell them to shove it up their arses.

  6. @7

    I completely agree that the eeriest thing is how quickly and passively the public at large shrugs this off. Or doesn’t even care enough to notice! Many people seem to think that this (and it isn’t at all restricted to this area of government) is a result of people trusting their government more, or being more easily fooled by rhetoric and propaganda. I tend to think, instead, that several major movements — from (“communist”) progressivism to (“hippie”) humanism to (“punk”) counterculture — have failed utterly, and that the general public has given up, with no fresh ideas on how to sway their own “representation” to do exactly that.

    Also, if you HAVE the option to “tell them to shove it,” then I envy you. My pride and ideals don’t quite eclipse my desire to eat and sleep.

  7. Computer technology is moving so rapidly that a sharp line between statistical and intelligence systems is bound to be obliterated.

    I like this line, a LOT. Spot on.

    I’ve long maintained a sense of calm over these concerns and stories by reminding myself and others that the larger the haystack, the more hidden the needle.

    Data is not clean and meaningful simply because it is data. The more you collect, the more spurious and junk filled it is.

    That’s not to say it is a harmless pile. There will be just as much opportunity for false positives against innocents as there will be for someone to find something out about you that you don’t want know.

    In short, it’s just a [big] mess, and it’s growing…

  8. “…Tuttle, Buttle…”
    –from the movie Brazil.

    The authority control problem in Libraries is challenging enough in the subset of the population that are creators of recorded works of information (books, CDs, filmmakers, etc), full of conscientious professionals trying to get the details right.

    For a TIA-type database, it is utterly nightmarish to contemplate.

  9. Perhaps it will have a positive aspect. If, as seems likely, evolution is driven by arms races between species and even in some cases between the sexes of the same species then perhaps this could turn out to be another type of arms race. As one part of society increasingly tries to keep tabs on the rest it could be an impetus to find ways to circumvent it. Those who would use technology to control others are never the creators of the technology. Am I naively optimistic? Couldn’t the geek inherit the Earth?

  10. Change all ocurrences of “government” to “corporations, with government cooperation” would be more accurate simplistic summation…

    APASHIOL: “Those who would use technology to control others are never the creators of the technology.”

    I politely but vehemently disagree. This isn’t the venue for such a discussion, but this starry-eyed view that ‘technology is liberating’ is very wrong and even harmful, when it blinds you from looking at how technology is more often used to control.

    Just look at “public” media (in the past we would have said “boadcast”): spectacular (“presciently seen”:-) and terrifying media consolidation — that is the combination of corporate strategy and designed-for technology. The result is horrible and getting worse.

    Tech won’t punch us out of that paper bag — that bag is the tech. Answer to the obvious response: the internet is not decentralized, and it is not liberating.

  11. The excerpts seems point to a problem of loss of (or failure to use) critical thinking skills, and not so much the evil of collecting and organizing information. That’s a problem regardless of whether extensive databases exist or not.

    I think the article gets into the more relevant problems of pooling of sensitive information such that it becomes very vulnerable to misuse.

    Maybe most impressive is the recognition that more powerful computers leads to more sophisticated analysis, which leads to gathering more data, which leads to needing more powerful computers.

  12. If the ultimate goal of humanity is to know everything, aren’t we on the right track? I’m impressed with the technology that allows us to accumlate so many facts. Fear of misuse should not prevent us from making “Information Wants To Be Free” a universal core ethic. And the problems with abuse can not be avoided, ever. We live in a duality: where there is good from something, there can also be bad.

  13. @ #6 & #7:

    I think Padster123 absolutely has the right idea, although I do understand that you have to pick your battles, Xodarap.

    An example: I worked at a firm that decided that “as a condition of continued employment,” we all had to sign a form giving the firm automatic access to our DMV records.

    I and many others just flat out refused, and this completely offensive idea went away. What were they going to do, fire 200 people?

    Per Jeff’s comments: my information doesn’t want to be free, thank you very much! Feel free to share yours! :)

    There’s a difference between knowledge and private information, and it’s not a technological distinction, it’s a political one.

  14. @11 Tomic
    I was thinking less along the lines of technology being liberating and more how it could be viewed as another environmental pressure and engine of change.
    In the evolutionary arms race there are always casualties. Most of the instruments used to controll the masses weren’t designed as such. Rather they were co-opted. If technology is increasing being designed with the objective to control then all the more reason to find ways to subvert it.

  15. @ #15: I don’t think information technology needs any impetus from the corporate police state at this point.

    Or to put it another way: dealing with misuses of technology like this one just distracts the attention and diverts the resources of both the private and the public sectors away from innovation that’s actually useful.

    But now maybe I’M being naively optimistic; I mean, I still believe there’s a difference between the private and the public sectors!

    Per Felby’s comments @ #3: I think there is a very real difference between paper and digital records, and very real concerns that weren’t there pre-digital. I don’t think these concerns are obsessive or paranoid, I think they’re just plain prudent. The price of freedom, and all that.

    Per confirming these concerns: I think Cory and others spend a great deal of time and effort doing just that.

  16. Intelligent people seem to be confused as to why CCTV, databases and civil liberties are being eroded with no one standing up for what’s right. I’d like to explain it: A whole lot of people believe that it’s more important to do what you’re told than to do what you think is right. Those people are fascists, though we don’t know them as such. Rather we know them as people raised under authoritarian parenting. By the process of training a child to become an obedient unquestioning nearly mindless slave to conformity, you create inside their psyches an overwhelming desire and dependence on other people in authority telling them what to do. For them, thinking for yourself, being responsible, is horror and chaos. For them to think other people aren’t under similar constraints is abject fear. So you can see how easy it would be for these closet fascists to put up cameras, monitor everyone’s behavior, give up their own freedoms willingly (because they don’t want them in the first place and have never tried them), and want you to obey or go to jail.

  17. but what if you raise your child to think for himself and he turns out to prefer following the herd?

  18. People of both persuasions are required, aren’t they? Our culture can have athoritarian aspects as well as those that celebrate individuality. I think it helps to realize that we’ve never lived in this day in age before. The kind of chaos that can emerge from a truly “free” society might be a level of chaos that would shock us silly. Humans need controls in place, boundries. CCTVs support the belief that people are less likely to misbehave if they are being watched. This hypothesis has been tested before and has support. Or haven’t you ever noticed how much better children and adults play while they are not only watched, but moderated? Moderated is good here. It must be good everywhere.

  19. Jeff (19): I don’t think you should conflate “moderated” and “watched” like that. They are two very different processes.

    As for the effectiveness of CCTV, I’ll have to take your word for that, as I haven’t read any studies. Regardless, though, that argument doesn’t hold water for me, because it ignores the COST that’s being paid.

    Here’s a thought experiment: traffic accidents would decline dramatically if fewer people were granted driver’s licenses, simply because there would be fewer cars on the road. Let’s say that anyone who tests with an IQ under such-and-such a number is denied a driver’s license.

    I don’t have to test this hypothosis to be pretty sure that it would be effective in reducing traffic accidents, 70% of which are caused by driver error (I did read THAT study), but that doesn’t mean I would support the idea. Would you? I’d rather take my chances on the road.

    Which is just a longwinded way of saying that a CCTV society is creepy and infantilizing, and I want nothing to do with it.

  20. bring in CCTV and I’ll hack it,jam it, avoid it, beat it,ignore it, scam it ,game it whatever.

    It’s like a new tax. Takes awhile but soon enough, everyone knows how to evade it.

  21. A few weeks ago, I saw a guy I work with doing his internet banking at lunch. He didn’t like it when I told him I thought that was a bad idea, and he really took offense when I said that I thought old fashioned written records are tougher to forge than electronic ones because they take some artistry to duplicate, where anyone with some know-how or just a set of instructions can hack electronic records. He got kind of snotty about it, so I had a friend in the IT department take control of his computer and log into his bank account while he was sitting in front of it.

    The thing is, this guy is very intelligent and has a very technical job. I definitely got the sense that he didn’t WANT to believe me because that might lead him into giving up the convenience, and coolness, of electronic banking.

    I don’t think our freedoms are really threatened by direct authoritarian attack. I think the slack-jawed, glassy-eyed majority of us will just trade them in for cute toys before any fascists can figure out how to take them from us by force. That’s always been part of human nature, which is why the author of this article was able to make such accurate predictions.

  22. Nick, I think being watched while on my private property would be uncomfortable. In public I wouldn’t care. I’m not sure our culture isn’t in fact infantilizing itself by its inceased tolerance for bad, spoiled-brat behavior. There is an increase in mental illness in America and Europe. That means more crazy behavior, more crime, more violence against innocent people. All the numbers are on the rise. The point has been made that the people watching the CCTV screes are humans and will make mistakes. My only answer is that AI will do a better job. Or it will kill us after it decides we are vermin. Either way, we have some important social issues to deal with, and trusting that people will behave themselves is not working too well.

  23. @#23 Jeff
    “There is an increase in mental illness in America and Europe. That means more crazy behavior, more crime, more violence against innocent people.”

    I do have to take issue with what you seem to be implying about the rise in mental illness. People who are mentally ill are much more likely to be victims of crime than the perpetrators. The mentally ill are about six times more likely to be murdered. That figure rises for men with schizophrenia and people with affective psychosis. This seems to be because they get dumped in living situations where they easily fall prey to petty criminals and drug addicts. The fact that when someone suffering from mental illness is the perpetrator gets media coverage acts to distort peoples perceptions.
    People under the influence of drink or drugs are more likely to kill.
    While CCTV might help to catch some of the perpetrators after the fact it certainly doesn’t address the root causes.

  24. Jeff: it’s an unsubtle kind of logic that doesn’t recognize that there are degrees of publicness and privatness, etc.

    It’s as if I were to say that once you’re behind your picket fence, the laws of society don’t obtain–which of course we know is not the case.

    Similarly, privacy concerns do not vanish outside of the picket fence.

    Per Apashiol’s comments: I agree.

    I would also add that in a society wherein mental hospitals are being closed every day, but prisons are being built every day, the system is simply funnelling the mental ill into prisons, along with the non-violent drug offenders, where they can be preyed on by the violent offenders they share those prisons with.

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