Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens. The Net Effect on People


Today it is much easier for computer-based record keeping to affect people than for people to affect computer-based record keeping. This signal observation applies to a very broad range of automated personal data systems. When a machine tool produces shoddy products, the reaction of consumers (and of government regulatory agencies in some cases) is likely to give the factory managers prompt and strong incentives to improve their ways. This is much less likely to be the case when computerized record-keeping operations fail to meet acceptable standards.

There is some evidence that in commercial settings competition helps to prevent harmful or insensitive record-keeping practices, especially when a record-keeping organization (a bank, for instance) depends on continuous interaction with individual data subjects in order to. keep its own records straight. It is also true that a number of schools and colleges have been forced to abandon automated registration and scheduling by determined student campaigns to fold, spindle, and mutilate. In governmental sittings, however, the dissatisfied data subject usually has nowhere else to take his business and can even be penalized for refusing to cooperate. The result, of course, is that many organizations tend to behave like effective monopolies, which they are.

It is no wonder that people have come to distrust computer-based record-keeping operations. Even in non-governmental settings, an individual's control over the personal information that he gives to an organization, or that an organization obtains about him, is lessening as the relationship between the giver and receiver of personal data grows more attenuated, impersonal, and diffused. There was a time when information about an individual tended to be elicited in face-to-face contacts involving personal trust and a certain symmetry, or balance, between giver and receiver. Nowadays an individual must increasingly give information about himself to large and relatively faceless institutions, for handling and use by strangers-unknown, unseen and, all too frequently, unresponsive. Sometimes the individual does not even know that an organization maintains a record about him. Often he may not see it, much less contest its accuracy, control its dissemination, or challenge its use by others.

In more than one opinion survey, worries and anxieties about computers and personal privacy show up in the replies of about one third of those interviewed. More specific concerns acre usually voiced by an even larger proportion.11 The public fear of a "Big Brother" system, in effect a pervasive network of intelligence dossiers, focuses on the computer, but it includes other marvels of twentieth-century engineering, such as the telephone tap, the wireless microphone, the automatic surveillance camera, and the rest of the modern investigator's technical equipage. Such worries seem naive and unrealistic to a data-processing specialist, but as in the case of campus protests against computerized registration systems, the apprehension and distrust of even a minority of the public can grossly complicate even a safe, straightforward datagathering and record-keeping operation that may be of undoubted social advantage.

It may be that loss of control and confidence are more significant issues in the "computers and privacy" debate than the organizational appetite for information. An agrarian, frontier society undoubtedly permitted much less personal privacy than a modern urban society, and a small rural town today still permits less than a big city. The poet, the novelist, and the social scientist tell us, each in his own way, that the life of a small-town man, woman, or family is an open book compared to the more anonymous existence of urban dwellers. Yet the individual in a small town can retain his confidence because he can be more sure of retaining control. He lives in a face-to-face world, in a social system where irresponsible behavior can be identified and called to account. By contrast, the impersonal data system, and faceless users of the information it contains, tend to be accountable only in the formal sense of the word. In practice they are for the most part immune to whatever sanctions the individual can invoke.

1New York Times, January 26, 1973, p. 4.

2 Although the term "dragnet" commonly connotes a system for catching criminals or others wanted by the authorities, the term, as used here, refers to any systematic screening of all members of a population in order to discover a few members with specified characteristics.

3 See Appendix E for a discussion of the development of computerized criminal justice information systems in the United States.

4 The NCIC system has been imitated by many city police departments whose systems respond to inquiries from law enforcement jurisdictions in adjacent suburbs. A suburban law enforcement officer first queries the city system to which his terminal is linked; if the file search there yields nothing, his query is passed on automatically to the State system and from there to the NCIC. These local systems have all the accuracy problems of the NCIC and some are currently the objects of law suits brought by their hapless victims. See, for example, "S.F.'s Forgetful Computer," San Francisco Examiner, May 9> 1973, p. 3, and "Coast Police Sued as Computer Errs," New York Times, May 5, 1973, p. 23. Almost all of these cases involve the failure of a local jurisdiction to report the recovery of a stolen vehicle or the revocation of a warrant.

5 For a discussion of political issues raised by computer-based information systems in urban government, sex Anthony Downs, "The Political Payoffs in Urban Information Systems," in Alan F. Westin (Ed.), Information Technology in a Democracy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press), 1971, pp. 311-321.

6 In addition to incompatibilities of file structure, the expectation that ;some day "it will all be put together" also runs afoul of the tenacity with which record-keeping organizations tend to protect their own turf. Certainly among private organizations competitive pressures sometimes inhibit the free circulation of information about clients and also induce resistance to sharing large blocks of individually identifiable data with government agencies. The California Bankers Association, for example, is currently involved in litigation (Stark v.Connally, 347 Fed. Supp. 1242, 1972) to prevent the Treasury Department from enforcing the reporting provisions of the so-called Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 (12 U.S.C. 1E29b; 31 U.S.C. 1051-1122) with respect to domestic financial transactions.

7 It should be noted that the same characteristics of automated systems which inhibit the compilation of dossiers can also inhibit efforts by the press and public interest: groups to penetrate the decision-making processes of record-keeping organizations and expose them to public scrutiny. This is particularly true when organizations destroy "hard-copy" records after putting the information in them into computer-accessible form. In such cases, the computer can become a formidable gatekeeper, enabling -a record-keeping organization to control access to public-record information that previously had been available to anyone with the time and energy to sift through its paper filers. Putting public-record data in computer-accessible form can also increase the cost of piecing information together from several different files. The same programming costs that make it uneconomical for law enforcement investigators and private detectives to "fish" in the automated files of a credit bureau could also make it prohibitively expensive for private citizens to examine public records.

8 "See, for example, Russell Ackoff, "Management Misinformation Systems," in Westin, op. cit., pp. 264-271.

9 A computer-based information system designed to control the population of a prison is described in Appendix F.

10 For a cogent description of how this is done, see James B. Rule, Private Lives and Public Surver7lance (London: Allen Lane), 1973, especially Chapter 6. See also Robert A. Hendrickson, The Cashless Society (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company), 1972.

11 See, for example, A National Survey of the Public's Attitudes Toward Computers (AFIPS-TIME, Inc.) 1971. This survey is discussed in Alan F. Westin and Michael A. Baker,