Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens. Too Much Data


The bare statement that computerization enables an organization to enlarge its capacity to process information deserves amplification. Although the computer enables a large organization to handle more data, the cost of changing from a manual to an automated operation may practically compel a smaller organization to exploit its data-processing capacity more fully. The cost of setting up an automated system includes not only that of equipment and special facilities, but also the cost of system analysis and design, of writing and testing computer programs, and of converting manual records into computer-accessible form. Thus, the manager of a newly automated system may have a strong economic incentive to spread the initial cost over as large a data-processing volume as he can; and to economize wherever possible in providing services. that do not make a direct contribution to the efficient operation of the system itself. A typical result of this condition is that clients receive erroneous bills, unjustified dunning letters, duplicate :magazine subscriptions, and countless other symptoms of inadequate system design and operation. Although these may be more a nuisance than a threat, they contribute heavily to the popular image of computerization as an offending and intrusive phenomenon.

The annoyance factor is worth more attention than many system managers give it. Resentment engendered in customers at the mercy of a computerized billing system, for example, spills over onto other computer operations, making unemotional discussion of computerization in fundamentally more significant contexts difficult.

An early incentive to concentrate on efficiency may also foster a tendency to behave as though data management were the primary goal of a computer-based record-keeping operation. When this occurs, unnecessary constraints may be placed on the gathering, processing, and output of data, with the result that the system becomes rigid and insensitive to the interests of data subjects. A commonly observed tendency in these situations is to make the data subject do as much of the data collection work as possible by forcing him to decide how to fit himself into a highly structured, but limited set of data categories (e.g., "Please check one of the following boxes.").

This can be a way to cut down errors in transcribing data from one form of record to another, but when done solely in the interest of economy the system may well sacrifice flexibility and accuracy. It is true that data compression and "shorthand" record entries did not originate with the computer; ill-adapted categorization has been the bane of bureaucracy for generations. However, manual record keeping can, at the stroke of a pen, take account of data that do not fit comfortably into pre-conceived categories, while a computer record is not usually amenable to any sort of annotation that was not expressly planned for in the design of the system. The relative inflexibility of computer-based record keeping, coupled with the constraints that some automated systems put on the freedom of data subjects to provide explanatory details in responding to questions, contributes to the so-called "dehumanizing" :image of computerization.

A recent occurrence in France illustrates how the inflexibility of an automated personal data system can adversely affect large numbers of people.1 The computer facility of the national family allotment system, which disburses some $600 million annually to 700,000 families in the Paris area, succumbed to the confusion created by changes in the allotment rate for nonworking wives, young people, and the handicapped. Efforts to unravel the difficulty were unsuccessful, and the computer center had to be reorganized as a manual operation in order to clear up an enormous backlog of emergency allotment payments. The disruption of human lives resulting from the inability to use the computer-based payments system was undoubtedly great and demonstrates why the difficulty of making even minor changes in the computer programs of a complex system gives cause for concern. Human bureaucracies exhibit similar rigidities, but their procedures can usually be changed by management directive, often by a simple promulgation of rules, and in a reasonably short time. In computer systems, however, even a change that has the wholehearted support of all concerned may be difficult and slow to effectuate.

This problem can become even more serious when economies of scale are sought by consolidating the data-processing tasks of several organizations into one automated system serving all. The effects of dysfunction then fall not only on the customers of the system primarily at fault, but also on "bystander" data subjects and other organizations.