|A Quaint Relic From Our Archives on Computer Spying|
Fri, 15 Jun 2007 12:00:00 CDT
For a special treat this weekend, I have a book review on the 'Rise of|
the Computer State' which was published more than 23 years ago in this
Digest, in 1984, when people were talking about the book by the same
name which had been published thirty or forty years before _that_.
I assume David Burnham who wrote the book we are reviewing today, has
himself grown wiser over the years. In fact, if he is still around, he
might favor us with a 2007 'revision'. I think Rob Kling might have
grown more wise also.
As usual, ignore all these email addresses; I doubt any of them are
Rise of the Computer State by David Burnham
Review by Rob Kling
This book examines the ways that Federal agencies and elected
officials have employed computer-based information systems (CBIS) to
increase their power unfairly. Burnham's main theses are: 1) that
CBIS have often been effective media for extending the surveillance
potential of the host organization; 2) overall, citizens have lost
substantial power in their routine dealings with computer-using
organizations; 3) attempts to regulate the use of CBIS containing
personal records have been frail and largely ineffective relative to
the scale of operations that should be regulated; 4) some
organizations which employ sophisticated CBIS for intelligence, such
as the National Security Agency, are unaccountable to the larger
These theses have a sinister tinge. As we enter 1984, the United
States is far from a police state. However, Burnham fears that the
slow, steady, consistent adoption of new surveillance systems and the
expansion of existing ones is eroding democratic political processes
in the United States. If he is correct, these are arguably the most
important consequences of computerization in the United States.
This is a trade book aimed at the same audience that reads
"Megatrends", "The Third Wave", or "Fifth Generation". Unlike these
highly popular books which are permeated with happy talk about the
social possibilities of widespread computerization, "The Rise of the
Computer State" examines the seamy underside of organizations that
employ CBIS to collect, manipulate, and communicate sensitive data
about all of us.
Burnham, a New York Times reporter, has written this book for a
popular audience. Its strengths lie in Burnham's sensitivity to the
civil liberties issues in practices that might simply appear
"expeditious" and in his eye for graphic detail in explaining how
organizations employ CBIS to make their operations efficient and
Burnham examines two themes that link computerization with a
certain kind of organizational power: surveillance of "targeted"
people or groups and opinion polling. In a separate chapter he
examines the National Security Agency which he labels "the ultimate
Some organizations act under legislative mandates that many
people would label "pro-social". For example, the Bureau of Child
Support of the Los Angeles District Attorney's office uses CBIS to
seize California State tax refunds from certain runaway fathers who
are delinquent in their child support payments. A second group act
within the boundaries of legal, but unduly permissive information
practices. For example, a company called U.D. Registry provides
landlords with histories of disputes with previous landlords,
maintains records which are usually unknown to tenants and does little
to insure that they are treated fairly. A third group of
organizations engage in action that are either illegal or nearly so.
For example, U.S. Army's surveillance of liberal and leftist activists
in the late 1960's, extended well beyond the scope of "national
security." Burnham portrays these activities with sharp detail that
give color to routine practices and their participants.
Burnham is a staunch civil libertarian and sees all social
surveillance as problematic. It is easiest to criticize organizations
like the U.S. Army when they intrude upon political minorities and
thereby threaten First amendment rights. It is also easy to criticize
some of the "holes" in CBIS such as those operated by U.D. Registry,
which are unknown to people on whom records are kept, and who are not
legally obligated to enable people to see their records, correct
errors, or annotate their files case of disputes.
Burnham's criticisms reach much further than identifying the
problems with CBIS employed by the second and third groups of
organizations. He questions the first group as well. Burnham's
questions about organizations and systems for tracking runaway fathers
who leave their children on welfare illustrates of his concerns about
social strategies which depend upon extensive surveillance for
enforcement: 1) will the original target group be slowly enlarged
until it is much larger than originally intended in the enabling
legislation? 2) can the information system be extended by local
officials for surveillance upon "others who fall into disfavor?"
Burnham reports how the scope of these systems has expanded from
locating parents who were avoiding child support payments and whose
children were receiving funds from Federal welfare programs to include
any parent whose (ex)spouse seeks the other parent of their children.
Burnham notes that there are few constitutional limits on the scope of
such an surveillance system. Why not, for example, expand its scope
so that creditors can track down their debtors? Or why not expand it
expand it so that people can locate lost relatives and old friends?
While these "information needs" are less heart wrenching than the
situations of women who turn to public assistance when their
ex-husbands refuse to pay court-mandated child support, they are also
"pro-social." Burnham argues that little prevents surveillance systems
such as this one from being slowly expanded to track ever larger
groups of people than legislative sentiment and a fragile coalition of
legislators who are sympathetic to civil liberties values.
Burnham uses this example to illustrate another key feature of
recent surveillance systems: records systems which are set up for
rather narrow purposes of one organization are used by investigators
in another organization. The Parent Locator System, for example, is
not a particular, specialized CBIS. Rather, it is a set of procedures
and arrangements which enable certain investigators to send lists of
"missing parents" to the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security
Administration, the Defense Department, the Veterans Administration,
and the National Personnel Center. Each of these organizations honors
these requests, searches its CBIS for the current locations of the
"missing parents" and returns the information to the requestors on
While many CBIS could be operated as manual systems, these
searches would be prohibitively expensive add-ons with manual record
systems. However, the marginal costs of search are affordable with
computerized record systems. The Parent Locator "System" is one of
many "matching programs" in which public agencies use existing files
to search for deviants. Organizational payroll files have been
"matched" against welfare files to find gainfully employed people who
are committing welfare fraud. State Department of Motor Vehicle files
have been matched with Selective Service files to identify eligible 18
year olds who have not registered for the draft. In each of these
cases, the records of thousands of people who have broken no laws are
matched to find the few that have. Burnham finds the principle
offensive, even though the applications are expedient and have so far
have been aimed at lawbreakers. In his eyes, expediency and
efficiency should not be preeminent values for administrative action.
Burnham briefly examines some of the Federal privacy initiatives
of the last decade, including the Privacy Act of 1974, the proposals
of the Privacy Protection Study Commission, and the 1978 Financial
Right to Privacy Act. These laws have provided minimal protections,
and important protections of the Federal Right to Privacy Act have
been undermined in implementation by Federal agencies under Ford,
Carter, and Reagan. Only a few of the 155 recommendations reported by
the Privacy Protection Study Commission in 1977 have been enacted in
Burnham mentions these laws and examines some of their
limitations. However, he doesn't evaluate their potential. Would
many of the problems of CBIS operated by firms like the U.D. Registry
be ameliorated if they were brought under laws like the Fair Credit
Reporting Act? Would civil liberties be better protected if the
remaining recommendations of the Privacy Protection Study Commission
were enacted in law? Unfortunately, Burnham is mute about these
Burnham is strongest in identifying concrete problems. Most
serious there is no permanent institutional counterweight to Federal
agencies when they propose new, more efficient, or enlarged personal
record systems. Agencies such as the FBI, the IRS, or the Social
Security Administration can return to Congress every few years with
proposals for massive CBIS which have problematic privacy aspects and
expect that sooner or later, the civil libertarians who restricted
their last proposal will be weaker or pre-occupied with other matters.
Burnham examines opinion polling as another form of
organizational intelligence which has been rendered substantially more
efficient and sophisticated by computers. He views opinion polling by
elected officials and organizations which are campaigning for specific
legislation as selective intelligence which places the target public
at an unfair disadvantage. The main problem he sees in market
research in the service of electoral politics is the extent to which
it helps make propaganda less transparent and the public more
manipulable by marketing strategists who target different messages to
different groups. While there is nothing new in political actors
tailoring their appeals to different audiences, Burnham fears that the
modern versions of sophistry are less obvious and consequently far
more successful for those who can afford to employ them.
He also views opinion polls as easily subject to manipulation by
politicians seeking legitimacy or publicity. Polling is not simply a
reporting device. Pollers gain leverage relative to the larger public
since much of the audience for polls will read headlines and short
news items which distort the scientific meaning of a poll by
neglecting to explain the nature of the sample, the detailed
distribution of responses, or the questions asked. Political polling
is not only "information gathering;" it can be a devise for persuading
larger publics about the popularity of one's position.
NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY
In a dramatic chapter, Burnham reports how the National Security
Agency (NSA) has operated under a charter which has remained secret it
was initiated by President Truman in 1952. The NSA specializes in
electronic surveillance. A large fraction of its efforts probably go
to observing military force deployments and strategic resources
worldwide. Burnham reports how the NSA has also illegally
eavesdropped on a significant fraction of international telephone
calls and telex messages which leave the United States.
Burnham reports on the character of specific programs of domestic
surveillance which were illegal. According to Burnham, the NSA
developed files on political dissidents including civil rights
activists, antiwar activists, members of Congress, and ordinary
citizens who were critical of official government policies. While
most of the domestic political surveillance appeared to take place in
the late 1960's through mid-1970's, the shroud of secrecy that
surrounds the NSA makes it difficult to have significant Congressional
oversight of its policies and practices.
During the last 5 years, the NSA has moved to control
cryptographic research in the United States. Recently developed
encryption schemes are based on sophisticated algorithms which require
digital circuits for rapid coding and decoding. Some of the new
schemes even allow the code keys to be public, rather than secret. As
more business operations in the United States is computerized,
organizations seek ways to protect the privacy of data such as large
funds transfers. Thus the market for efficient and effective data
encryption devices has expanded beyond the intelligence community to
include financial institutions.
The NSA has recently taken control of this research out of the
hands of the National Science Foundation, even though it has no
publicly documented legal mandate for its action. There are deep
policy questions about whether national security is well served by the
availability of cheap encrypting devices which are effectively
unbreakable. These questions are not being raised in public debates,
nor does Burnham shed much light on them. Rather he simply adopts the
libertarian critique of surveillance. Like other political labels
with strong moral content, it has been abused as a cover for unsavory
actions carried out by government operatives. The term in not wholly
vacuous and Burnham glosses most of the knotty policy issues.
TOWARD A POLICE STATE?
Burnham's theses are loosely fabricated from dramatic examples.
He does not offer explicit hypotheses, strong organizing concepts, and
a way of placing his examples in a context which enables a reader to
understand their overall significance. Examples of bad outcomes can
elicit sympathy for "victims." But systematic information about the
frequency and extent of problems and abuses are necessary to
demonstrate that the overall social setup within which they happen is
badly flawed, corrupt, or perverse. Some of his examples of people
victimized by slips in CBIS and organizational practices suggest that
Kafka has provided better guiding images than Orwell for appreciating
a computer-based, mobile, organizational society.
Burnham has little taste for irony, and explores Orwellian abuse
rather than Kafkaesque happenings. Do the events Burnham describes
indicate that Federal agencies and other large computer users are
pushing the the US along a path of political development that is
leading to a much less democratic form of Federal government?
Unfortunately, Burnham does not describe the changing nature of
Congressional oversight and public accountability sufficiently well to
provide a clear answer to that question. He succeeds in generating
sentiments in favor of this hypothesis by his accumulated cases of
organizational seaminess and occasional abuse. But he relies heavily
upon a reader's distrust of elected officials and large bureaucracies
to help cement his case. He also relies upon general theses about
power, such as Lord Acton's maxim. Unchecked power often corrupts and
organizations are often less willing to be fair to their clients than
efficient and autonomous. But general principles do not make the
particular case since the variations in actual organizational
practices are significant and vast.
One peculiar feature of contemporary police states, such as those
in Eastern Europe and Latin America, is the extent to which they have
relied upon low technologies for extensive social control and even
mass terror. Many abusive ruling cliques rely upon neighborhood
informants, secret trials, and mysterious disappearances to maintain
control. They don't need database management systems, teleprocessing,
and spy satellites. Low technology strategies are especially
effective in "small town" societies.
Burnham's implicit argument is that less obtrusive forms of
surveillance and social control can harm the political culture of
liberal democracies. CBIS are attractive to administrators and
politicians because they promise heightened efficiencies and sometimes
enhanced fairness in providing services to large mobile populations.
However, the anecdotes of errors with a human cost and even abuses
which Burnham piles on the reader, illustrate problems but do not make
Burnham's strongest case is his critique of the NSA's abuses of
authority. Like, the secret Law Enforcement Intelligence Units, much
of the problem with the NSA comes from its shroud of secrecy and
freedom from significant legislative oversight. It's use of
computer-based monitoring systems is incidental to its problematic
place in American political life.
I suspect that one basic issue is accountability of these
agencies to the public through the legislatures. At times this is no
easy task when the administrative agencies can shroud their actions
with the complexities of high technologies. There is a strong case to
be made that in the clashes between branches of government,
administrative agencies have found legal and technological loopholes
to temporarily free themselves from regulatory restraint.
Congressional actions are not always right. But there is an argument
that administrative agencies have been able to exploit computer-based
technologies to shift the balance of governmental power away from
elected officials. This systematic shift of power has been best
documented in the case of local governments. It is likely to be
happening at other governmental levels as well.
COMPUTERS AND POLITICS
Burnham is sensitive to the shifts of power to executive
agencies. But he is at a loss to explain them very well. He misses
the deeper politics of computing. I find a clue to his misperception,
a very common one, in his reference to "the computer's system of
thinking." For Burnham, CBIS are simply highly structured, logical,
possibly hierarchical information processing "tools." He misses the
ways in which CBIS designs often reflect the "systems of thinking" of
those who propose them. CBIS promoters may label their preferences as
"required by computers" to help their case, but they often ignore or
discourage many technical and administrative alternatives.
Many CBIS are usefully viewed as forms of social organization.
They are composed of many layers of data, programs, and communications
support stretched across different organizations. Those who oversee
them need some ability to appreciate technical alternatives and also
have some substantive expertise in the organizational functions which
have computer support. This dual expertise is rare, particularly
among elected officials at all levels of government. As a
consequence, they have trouble in providing sensible guidance to
executive agency staff.
QUALITY OF BURNHAM'S ANALYSIS
I would like to like this book more than I do. I like Burnham's
eye for detail and his relentless questions about the underside of
computer-based surveillance systems. Some new data brokering
organizations start up each year. Each year, many existing
organizations expand the scope and scale of their record keeping.
Laws and administrative practices also change slowly each year. Over
ten year periods, these gradual small scale changes accumulate.
Periodic reviews of these practices are useful. As a consequence of
continuing changes in organizational practices, legal arrangements,
and technology, studies published in the early 1970's such as Westin
and Baker's "Databanks in a Free Society" or James Rules' "Public
Surveillance and Private Lives" have become dated. Both of these
studies pre-date the use of computer matching, and several Federal
Unfortunately, this book is weak in analysis. Even the chapter
headings don't guide the argument. The first three chapters are
labelled "surveillance," "data bases," and "power." However, themes of
power, surveillance, and data bases are strong elements in each of
them. The chapter labelled "power" primarily examines political
polling. This lax labelling of chapters signifies the way that
Burnham eschews tough analysis in favor of easy sentimentalizing.
It should be hard for Burnham, a reporter and hence a kind of
intelligence agent, to find observation, reporting, and persuasion to
be inherently sinister acts. However, Burnham colors his narrative so
that people who administer a CBIS are stigmatized in descriptions such
as "(speaking) in the quiet monotones of many long-time government
employees," or are "slightly Mephistopholean." People who sympathize
with civil libertarian values are portrayed without any frailties.
Burnham is deeply suspicious of pollsters and politicians who
manipulate the public with numbers, but he is very adept at
manipulating his audience with images. These images which equate
personal goodness with political philosophy grossly mislead.
Despite these limitations, "The Rise of the Computer State" is
particularly important because it helps articulate and illustrate
important questions about computing and social power. Unfortunately,
there is no other up-to-date inquiry into organizational surveillance
and high technology.
"The Rise of the Computer State" is an important contribution to
the tiny stream of literature which examines the political dimensions
of computer-based technologies in public life. I hope that many
people read this book despite its analytical flaws. It helps
dramatize the current problems of computer-based surveillance systems.
Burnham's graphic episodes can help give people who are not intimate
with CBIS a keen appreciation of the dilemmas which their use and
users are now creating. It can help more systematic investigators by
providing a rich set of clues from which to continue this inquiry.
These questions will not go away after 1984 has passed.
It is interesting, is it not, how so much of what shocked the public
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