Computers linked together through high-speed telecommunications networks are destined to become the principal medium for making, storing, and using records about people. Innovations now being discussed throughout government and private industry recognize that the computer-based record, keeping system, if properly used, can be a powerful management tool. Its capacity for timely retrieval and analysis of complex bodies of data can be of invaluable assistance to hard-pressed decision makers. Its ability to handle masses of individual transactions in minutes and hours rather than in weeks or months, as was formerly the case, makes possible programs of service to people that would have been unthinkable in the manual record- keeping era. Medicare, for example, would be impossible to administer without computers to take over many routine clerical functions. Computer-based public assistance payments systems are also helping States and counties to assure that welfare payments go to those who truly need and deserve them. This Administration's strategy calls for strengthening direct support of individuals-for putting cash directly in the hands of those who need it-and keeping accurate, up-to-date, easily retrieved records on individual beneficiaries helps achieve that goal.
Nonetheless, it is important to be aware, as we embrace this new technology, that the computer, like the automobile, the skyscraper, and the jet airplane, may have some consequences for American society that we would prefer not to have thrust upon us without warning. Not the least of these is the danger that some record keeping applications of computers will appear in retrospect to have been oversimplified solutions to complex problems, and that their victims will be some of our most disadvantaged citizens.
This report of the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Automated Personal Data Systems calls attention to issues of record keeping practice in the computer age that may have profound significance for us all.
One of the most crucial challenges facing government in the years immediately ahead is to improve its capacity to administer tax dollars invested in human services. To that end, we are attempting to eliminate ineligibility, overpayment, and other errors from welfare caseloads. We are encouraging local government and public and private service agencies to forge new cooperative links with one another. We are attempting to move away from the fragmented social service structures of the past, which have dealt with individuals and with families as if their problems could be neatly compartmentalized; that is, as if they were not people. Many of these measures could result in more intensive and more centralized record keeping on individuals than has been customary in our society. Potentially, at least, this is a double-edged sword, as the Committee points out. On the one hand, it can help to assure that decisions about individual citizens are made on the basis of accurate, up-to-date information. On the other, it demands a hard look at the adequacy of our mechanisms for guaranteeing citizens all the protections of due process in relation to the records we maintain about them.
The report of the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Automated Personal Data Systems deserves to be widely read and discussed. It represents the views of an unusual mixture of experts and laymen. The Committee obviously considers its recommendations to be a reasonable response to a difficult set of problems. The Committee has taken a firm position with which some may disagree. However, we should be grateful to the Committee for speaking with such a clear voice. In doing so, it has no doubt set in motion the kind of constructive dialogue on which a free society thrives.
Caspar W. Weinberger