“Habeas Data” and 1970s thoughts about our computing future

This afternoon, while I was waiting for the boiler work to be completed and taking my lunch in the dining room, I grabbed a magazine from the top of a box that was gifted to me by the widow of my first mentor in Egyptology, Frank J. Yurco. The cover of the November 1970 issue of National Geographic (Volume 138, Number 5) shows an image of Akhenaten, related to the article inside about the talatat project that reconstructed Amarna-era monuments. But the main article of this magazine, and the one I spent most of my lunch musing over, is the 41-page “Behold the Computer Revolution” by Peter T. White.

While I was reading, I put a few of the more amusing quotes on my Twitter updates; you can find them around lunchtime on my 4 January 2012 tweet stream, or you can download a PDF of the entire article and read it yourself. It’s pretty fascinating, if amusing and also sort of depressing (commentary about there being less than 750,000 single women over 30 in the entire workforce of the United States was rather sobering, for one thing). But one thing in particular really struck me as I read the article: a quote attributed to Alan F. Westin, a law and government professor at Columbia University. (If you’re reading along, this section starts on page 630 under the subheading “Machines Hold Power for Evil and Good”). I’d like to share it here, just for thought, given the condition we find ourselves in today regarding technology, privacy, commerce, government, and some other things:

He says: “Man has progressed over the centuries from the status of a subject of a ruler to that of a citizen in a constitutional state. We must be careful to avert a situation in which the press of government for systematic information and the powerful technology of computers reverse this historical process in the second half of the 20th century, making us ‘subjects’ again.” He adds, “Perhaps the greatest legal device to facilitate the movement from subject to citizen in England was the writ of habeas corpus – the command issued by the Crown to produce the body of the person being held, and to justify his imprisonment. Perhaps what we need now is a kind of writ of ‘habeas data’ – commanding government and powerful private organizations to produce the data they have collected and are using to make judgments about an individual, and to justify their using it.”

Peter White goes on to add, in a way that really jumped out from the page:

What if computer-equipped authority, insufficiently restrained, should turn hyper-inquisitive someday? If every purchase one makes, down to the last 10-cent newspaper, was made and at what time; if millions of telephone conversations can not only be recorded daily but instantly scanned to pick out key words considered alarming by the surveillance officers….The implications surpass the horrors of George Orwell’s 1984.

Dr. Jerome B. Weisner, Provost of MIT, has said that the computer’s potential for good, and the danger inherent in its misuse, exceed our ability to imagine. Wouldn’t that be the worst it could do – to become an instrument of tyranny, propelling mankind into a new Dark Age?

Certainly lots to ponder here. What do you think?



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One response to ““Habeas Data” and 1970s thoughts about our computing future”

  1. tsiuda Avatar

    And not long after I post this, I see this astonishing bit of technology (if true): A time cloak?

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