The nonprofit organization to which I belong recently put the personal data of around 410,000 people on the internet, connected to interactive street maps of where they lived. The data includes their full names, date and place of birth, known residential address, and often includes their professions and arrest records, sometimes even information about mental or physical handicaps. It also lists whether any of their grandparents were Jewish.
How would you feel if somebody published your personal data on the internet along the same lines? The website described above is based on the personal data of victims of Nazi persecution and is part of a memorialization project. But given that much of personal data is probably available on a number of corporate servers to which the government could have unrestricted access, what is to stop this data from being misused? Even if the information was never made public, how would your personal data be exploited if a right-wing Christian extremist government were to take power in the United States? Is it so far-fetched to imagine such personal data exploitation in a Handmaid’s Tale future?
The Nazi German government conducted a census on 17 May 1939 in which a special “supplementary card” was included, where every person had to list if each of their four grandparents was Jewish or not. In the 1980s, a census was conducted in West Germany that led to a lot of resistance from the left, including massive street demonstrations. Several academic works about the planned 1980s census were published at the time, in which the thesis was put forth that the Nazis misused the 1939 census data to create the deportation lists to send the Jews to concentration camps and their subsequent deaths. The resistance to the 1980s census led to its being delayed from the original date of 1981 until they finally managed, in 1987, to meet the criteria put forth by a decision of a 1983 German Supreme Court which severely limited the extent to which the private data of individuals could be used.
Later research, however, proved that although the Nazis did, in the end, misuse the 1939 census data, in that they sent the “supplementary cards” of people with Jewish grandparents to the local police (ie Gestapo) registration offices throughout Germany, this only happened in late 1941 and 1942. Not only were the deportations already in full operation by this point, but by this time the data on the “supplementary cards” was largely no longer valid — many Jews had already been deported, and most of those who remained had been forced in the interim to move into smaller, crowded apartments, so-called “Jew houses.”
The 1939 census data was not needed to create deportation lists by 1941/1942 anyway, since the Jewish communities had been forced by the Gestapo to make card indexes of all known Jewish people. These card indexes — it was a typical Nazi tactic to force the people they were persecuting to directly assist in their own persecution — were usually the basis of the deportation lists. In some cases, the Jewish community was itself forced to write the deportation lists and decide who could remain and who got on the train.
Today we don’t need the Gestapo to force us to give up our personal data, we offer it up voluntarily to social media like Facebook or major US government contractors for the military and intelligence communities like Google. Many people offer their data up to maintain their social presence on the internet or merely for convenience. The standard reply to this is often “I don’t have anything to hide,” but that’s based upon the assumption of a government that respects personal privacy and doesn’t arrest people based on their political opinions, sexual preferences, or lifestyle choices.
If the Nazis had had access to personal data the same way that these corporate conglomerates do today, there would likely have been very few survivors of the persecution of people for their race, political stance, sexual preference or for the fact that they were somehow seen as physically or mentally handicapped. Add CCTV video surveillance and facial recognition software to the mix and there would have been next to no survivors. This isn’t some kind of alternate reality conjecture á la Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, however. The abuse of data by the NSA has already shown what is possible in a supposedly constitutional democracy, and the slow slide of the US government into new forms of corruption in the last decades, culminating in the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president, leaves a bleak vision of a future that eclipses even the worst fictional visions of dystopia.
One of the main problems is that we don’t expect or receive protection of our personal data by default, and though the EU has already created such laws, as it stands right now you need to take extra steps yourself to reduce the amount of your data that can be exploited: quit Facebook; reduce using Google insofar as it’s possible (ie no email accounts); use browsers like Epic that don’t store your data, automatically delete all cookies and trackers, and hide your geolocation with a built-in VPN. But unless most of the population takes this step, which is very unlikely, or laws are put into place to guarantee personal data privacy by default instead of with a fair amount of extra effort, then most of the population is in the position to be commercially exploited and maybe, depending on how things go in our so-called constitutional democracies, persecuted in ways they can’t yet imagine.
I deal with Nazi history on a daily basis, and that doesn’t make it any easier to read the daily news. I look around the streets of Berlin, where I live, and the memories of the past are omnipresent in the places where victims of the Nazis once lived, loved, and worked. My distinction between past, present and future is getting more and more blurred, and the further we allow ourselves to offer up our personal data to institutions whose use of that data is out of our control and whose abuse of that data seems to increase every day, the less this distinction between past, present and future seems to become.
Roderick Miller is a US-born historian living in Berlin and the chairman of the nonprofit organization Tracing the Past, whose online project Mapping the Lives ties personal biographies of those persecuted by the Nazi regime with interactive street maps.