Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens. Systematic Management


For computers to be used effectively as management tools, an organization must first analyze its activities in a careful, systematic way. For example, if it is known that the goals of an operation can be attained by more than one method, the various alternatives can in principle be simulated on the computer, and their relative costs and benefits thereby compared to find the most cost-effective one. This mathematical simulation of a complex activity is called systems analysis.

During the late sixties, planners began to extend the techniques of systems analysis from their early engineering applications to more general problems of society. In particular, systems analysis was brought to bear on such ambitious tasks as improving the delivery of health care, managing the rapidly growing welfare caseload in urban centers, and measuring the effectiveness of a fragmented and increasingly expensive educational system.

The introduction of the disciplined methods of computer-assisted management gave program managers new tools for "auditing" the performance of institutions in programs of service to people. This auditing process includes:

  • Keeping track of transactions between an organization and its clients or beneficiaries;
  • Measuring the performance of the organization in relation to the goals set for it;
  • Providing information needed for planning.

Each of these functions involves information about individuals. Administrative data are needed for everyday management of individual transactions. Statistical data are needed for planning and for assessing the performance of a program. Intelligence: data are needed for making judgments about people's character and qualifications; e.g., in making suitability determinations for employment, commercial credit, welfare assistance, tuition-loan aid, or disaster relief.

The demand generated by all these uses for personal data, and for record-keeping systems to store and process them, challenges conventional legal and social controls on organizational record keeping. Records about people are becoming both more ubiquitous and more important in everyday life. The number of organizations performing service and control functions is growing. In many cases, the scale of their operations virtually assures that the individuals they affect will be known to them only through the contents of systematically maintained records. A new technology is also demonstrating its potential to accommodate radical growth in organizational record-keeping operations. Yet society currently affords little protection for an individual who is the subject of a record, unless some commercial or property interest in involved.

The following chapters represent our effort to demonstrate why this situation deserves immediate attention and to recommend a course of action that, we believe, constitutes an appropriate societal response to the problems at hand.

1 The use of the word "file" in this sense dates from the 1640's. See "File," Oxford English Dictionary, 1933,1V, 210.

2II Samuel 24 and I Chronicles, 21, 23, 27.

3The word statistics [state-istics] came into use in the late 18th century to denote information on the condition of a state. See "Statistics," Oxford English Dictionary, 1933, X, E64.

4The classification follows that of Prof. Alan Westin in M. Greenberger (Ed.), Computers, Communications, and the Public Interest (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins Press), 1971, p. 156.

5The reader who is interested in comparing the American experience with that of other nations will find a summary of available material in Appendix B, below.

6The evolution of Federal policy with respect to the confidentiality of census data is traced in Appendix C, below. See also Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House), 1973, Chapters 19-28.

7Alan F. Westin, and Michael A. Baker, Databanks in a Free Society (New York: Quadrangle Books), 1972, pp. 224-225.