Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens. Historical Development


In Cabinet No. 1 of the Musee des Antiquites Nationales near Paris there lies a wing-bone of an eagle, not much longer than a finger. On it, three rows of tiny marks, each carefully engraved with a flint point, count off a calendar of days from new moon to new moon. That eagle bone from the Magdalenian period, roughly 14,000 years ago, is the most ancient evidence we have of man's unique ability use abstract notation as an aid to memory.

Out of the Stone Age, through the dawn of agriculture, similar records in all pre-literate cultures attest to the attempts of hunters, gatherers, and farmers to keep track of the passing of the seasons and the meshing cycles of growth and harvest on which survival depended. Even long after more complex societies had fostered more elaborate forms of written record keeping, simple tally scratches, half practical and half magical, continued to serve as records-on the tally sticks of millers, for example, and on the six-guns of lawmen.

Record-keeping techniques grew and were perfected as once scattered tribes and small communities were amalgamated into larger and more organized states. Among the ancient cradles of civilization-Asia Minor, China, India, and Central and South America-only the Inca civilization of the Andes did not develop a written method of recording, using instead a system of knotted cords, called quipu. Indeed, practically all the earliest writing deals with records-palace inventories, lists of tribute to kings and sacrifices to temples, records of royal births and deaths, traders' accounts-records of things too important to trust to memory.

In most of the ancient world, the scribes and clerks who developed systematic record keeping quickly expanded into generalized public administration. In Sumer and other city-states of Mesopotamia, royal genealogies were embellished with accounts of battles, land. surveys included detailed descriptions of farms and villages, and tax records included commentaries on the tax laws that governed them. Gradually these commentaries were detached from records proper and took on a separate existence. The law code of Hammurabi, for example, emerged from the notes of scribes and marks an important milestone in the history of social organization. Once the laws of the state achieved an existence independent of records, the witness of the records could be used to bind the state and the citizen equally. When both the tax laws and the size of a man's herd were matters of public record, the pressure of public scrutiny would tend to keep both the publican and the herdsman honest.

Systematic record keeping in the ancient world reached a high point during the Roman Empire and then degenerated with the decline of strong central government. During the Middle Ages the levying of taxes was left largely in the hands of local strongmen who had little interest in record keeping. Although the laws of inheritance and the interest of the Church in proper sacramental procedures encouraged parishes to maintain registers of births, marriages, and deaths, those records seldom covered the bunk of the population. In soma cases, however, rulers of newly conquered domains did order inventories and land surveys. One such was William the Conqueror's survey, known as the Domesday Book, of the extent and value of landholdings in England in 1086 A.D.. It became the foundation of Exchequer records that, in turn, grew to include audits of the accounts of sheriffs and other local officials. The memory-aiding function of these records is suggested by the title of the official responsible for keeping them-King's Remembrancer.

As a landmark in the gradual evolution from personal sovereignty to bureaucratic administration, the Magna Carta of A.D. 1215 laid the foundation in Anglo-Saxon legal tradition for codifying mutual responsibilities of government and governed. The Magna Carta, wrested from King John by his powerful barons, reduced the independence of justices, sheriffs, and other local officials, censuring, in theory at least, that men who knew the common law and were willing to observe it would hold positions of high authority. During the reign of King John also, an administrative distinction between public and closed records began to be observed; official records were divided into letters patent that were sent and stored open, with the king's seal attached for authentication, and letters close that were sent folded and sealed, and that were stored secure from public inspection. The use and content of these two classes of records corresponds well, as we shall see, with the modern practice of separating public from confidential records.

As custom and statute more and more provided that government records should be open to the public, the justification for closed or secret records came to be their pertinence to the defense and security of the state. By the mid-1600's; all royal courts maintained files1 of information on the identity and activities of citizens or aliens who were considered a threat to the state or the sovereign. Such files covered a small number of individuals by today's standards, but were treated with great secrecy and came to be the responsibility of a special class of record keeper well outside the regular channels of administration. The scope and intensity of this special field of record keeping soon gave it a character so different from its bureaucratic origins that it becomes convenient at this point to draw a distinction between general administrative records and the very special intelligence records.

As the idea gradually spread that governing a state involved more than determining and following the wishes of a small ruling class, government became less desultory, more aligned to philosophical currents, and less reactive to the press of random events. As government thus grew more self-conscious, the need for planning became apparent. At first, legislators used their right of access to public records mainly to look backwards; to reconstruct the flow of history that had brought them to their present position. However, lawmakers bent on reform soon found that they needed better guides than records of legal decisions, royal correspondence, and official accounts and audits. They needed benchmark information from which to measure progress toward the goals they wish to achieve.

About 1750, the notion of a national census was revived for the first time since the Roman era. Public opposition was strong at first, many people suspecting a scheme to raise taxes. The clergy, for whom the Biblical injunction against the taking of a census still held,2 also were opposed. Resistance gradually subsided.; first in Scandinavia and the German states, then generally throughout the Continent and North America. In the American democracy, where a State's Congressional representation constitutionally depends in part on the size of its population, a national census, at ]east to the extent of a simple head count, was an obvious political necessity.

Government soon found that although there was little organized public objection to the head count as such, probing by census takers for information about income, family life, living habits, and other personal matters turned citizens obstinate and made the census more difficult to take.

The problem of gathering information from an antagonistic public led to the creation of yet another class of official. records, the so-called statistical3 file. The essence of such a file is that the data it contains are not used to affect specific individuals. In creating such a file, the government, in, order to gain information the public might otherwise be reluctant to give, foregoes some of the power over individuals that administrative records containing the same data would afford. The essential condition is that citizens believe that their individual contributions to a statistical file will not be made public and will not be used to punish or embarrass them.