The following is the content of Chapter 9 of Jack Nilles' book Exploring the World of the Personal Computer, written in the late 1970s (before the IBM PC, the Internet, ubiquitous email, the World Wide Web, Twitter and Facebook existed) and published by Prentice-Hall in 1982. The French edition, Mon Ordinateur et Moi, was published by Insep Éditions in 1985.
Given the variety of uprisings in the world in the early 21st century, together with growing worries about personal and other forms of privacy, we thought that this chapter, written more than 30 years ago, might be interesting to contemporary readers.

Big Brother — and All His Cousins

The chapter has the following sections, in case you don't want to read all of it at once:

The results of several recent national surveys have shown that three out of every four Americans are worried about the effects of increasing computerization on their personal privacy. Most people's concerns have naturally been about the ability of large computerized data bases to collect information about their private lives and regurgitate that information to persons unknown (but presumably either pesky or hostile). Since this concern is so widespread, it is clear that many people still believe that computer data bases, improperly used, are likely to abuse their rights of privacy or have abused those rights in the past. What difference will personal computers make? After all, personal computers are just little things, right? There's a world of difference between the big computers that "they" have and those little machines that will be appearing all over the place, is there not?

True, personal computers are physically small but, don't forget, many of them have—or will have—the same technological capability as the big machines of the past. Furthermore, if there are millions of personal computers around, which might be used in undesirable ways, won't that have some effect on our future privacy?

Snoopy Isn't Always a Beagle

American society, with its emphasis on personal freedom, has also been concerned with the protection of personal privacy since the United States began two centuries ago. Half a century ago, in an opinion on a case before the Supreme Court, Judge Louis Brandeis wrote that the privacy of the indvidual was "the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." This attitude is still somewhat unique among the countries of the world. In international discussions of the effects of computers on privacy, representatives of other governments are more likely to take the position that it is the privacy of the government that is to be protected, not the privacy of the citizen. George Orwell's book, 1984, reached the logical conclusion of the threat of invasion of personal privacy by information technologies. In 1984, "Big Brother" was everywhere. Almost no place could be found which was safe from electronic eavesdropping. Information concerning daily movements, habits, mannerisms, attitudes, education, sex life, everything that could be known about an individual citizen was kept on a computer somewhere. A big computer.

The vision of Big Brother is a repugnant one to democratic societies. But, as the title of this chapter indicates, Big Brother can have many, smaller cousins, cousins who also have a penchant or keeping records about their fellow citizens. These cousins are by no means new to history. Pryers and snoopers, information gatherers and collectors have existed throughout recorded history. But recordkeeping, in and of itself, is not felt by most people to be a malevolent activity. The primary concerns people have regarding the collection and storage of information about themselves by others are focused on the abuse of that privilege and on the specific changes in those processes made possible by computers.

Most people realize that, in order for society to function at all, certain types of information concerning them as individuals must be kept by others. Physicians need to keep files concerning the medical histories of their patients. Schools need to keep records of the grades of their students. Courts need to keep records of judicial proceedings in progress or pending. Creditors need to keep information concerning the ability to repay of those to whom they extend credit. The Department of Defense needs to establish the trustworthiness of those to whom it divulges military secrets. Most people recognize these needs and agree to the maintenance of these records when they are going to school, going to see a doctor, buying things on credit, or working with the armed services. No problem. Where we do become nervous, and excited and irritable is when we discover, or suspect, that information is being collected and kept about us that

The reason for our agitation about the collection by others of these types of information is a certain amount of healthy cynicism; many of us have strong suspicions that the information collected may not be used strictly and solely for purposes claimed by the collector. If each of us trusted each of these many information collectors to use the information only in socially acceptable ways, then these concerns would largely disappear. The surveys show that we do not and they have not.

These issues as to who whould be able to collect what information about us are still independent of computer technology. The issues exist and would continue to exist even if no computers had yet been invented. But the introduction of the computer to this privacy scene causes some very fundamental alterations in the issues. These alterations in the privacy situation come about as a consequence of three basic characteristics of computers in general, including personal computers

The implication of the first characteristic, of course, is that what comes out of the computer data base retrieval process is not necessarily what either the information collection organization or the individual about whom the information is being kept had in mind. The consequences of the second and third of these characteristics of computers is that organizations or individuals using computers to store information about other people can do it very efficiently. The temptation, therefore, is to store a little extra information about each individual "just in case" because it is so easy to do.

As concern about personal privacy mounted, Congress passed the Privacy Act of 1974. Although the Privacy Act deals only with the record-keeping practices of the Federal government, the considerations embodied in the Act, as elaborated upon by the Privacy Protection Study Commission which was created by the Act, are equally applicable to the private sector of the economy. In particular:

The commission concluded that if personal privacy is to be protected, a national policy must focus on five systemic features of personal-data record-keeping in America today.

First, while an organization makes and keeps records about individuals to facilitate relationships with them, it also makes and keeps records about individuals for other purposes, such as documenting its own actions and making it possible for other organizations--government agencies, for example-- to monitor the actions of individuals;

Second, there is an accelerating trend, most obvious in the credit and financial areas, toward the accumulation in records of more and more personal details about an individual;

Third, more and more records about an individual are collected, maintained, and disclosed by an organization with which the individual has no direct relationship, but whose records help to shape his life;

Fourth, most record-keeping organizations consult the records of other organizations to verify the information they obtain from an individual and thus pay as much or more attention to what other organziations report about him than they pay to what he reports about himself; and

Fifth, neither law nor technology now gives an individual the tools he needs to protect his legitimate interests concerning the records organizations keep about him.

[Page 8 of "Personal Privacy in an Information Society." The Report of the [Privacy Protection Study Commission]. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office,1977.]

In short, the Privacy Protection Study Commission decided that those worries that many of us have about the disposition of information about ourselves are quite justified. Government agencies, credit bureaus, department stores, banks and other financial institutions have in the past, and presumably will in the future, use information collected about ourselves in ways to which we have not agreed and over which we may have no control. Big Brother's cousins have been at work, at least on occasion.

It is important to keep some perspective on this question of computers and privacy concerning the differences between the inherent ability of computer technology to do various things and the actualities, the ways in which we or others really make use of the technology. Most organizations collecting information about individuals are entirely responsible. Their policies go to great lengths to protect against the abuse of individual privacy. For the most part, we can be confident that information about us will not be misused. Nevertheless, the possibility for abuse of our privacy is there. Specifically, the Privacy Protection Study Commission states that "Technology, like the law, has by and large failed to provide the tools an individual needs to protect himself from the undesirable consequences that recorded information can create for him today; and...growth in society's record-keeping capability threatens to upset existing power balances between individuals and organizations, and between government and the rest of society, thereby creating a danger that delay in addressing important privacy issues will irrevocably narrow the range of options open to public policy makers."

In addition to the basic capabilities of large computers to rapidly collect, assemble, process, and spit out enormous quantities of information about us without proper protection embodied in the software running the data base programs, the Commission was also concerned about the added dimension provided by computer networking. As I have noted in previous chapters, when we connect our computers to each other, via telecommunications networks, we do all sorts of things that are difficult to do with single computers. One of these things is swapping information about other people. We can have what is known as a virtual data base.

A virtual data base is one in which the individual records constituting the file on, say, an individual need not be stored in the same place; they don't have to be stuffed into the same manilla folder in a file cabinet. They dont't have to be recorded on the magnetic disk or tape files of a single computer. One piece of information about you can be on a computer in Peoria, another in Poughkeepsie, another in Seattle, another in San Francisco, and all of them can be retrieved by a computer in Los Angeles. To the operator of the computer in Los Angeles, the information may appear to originate from Los Angeles, when in fact none of it does. It is all telecommunicated to the Los Angeles computer from these other places.

Aside from the "gee whiz" technological aspects of this digital legerdemain there are the human aspects: different kinds of errors may have been introduced into the fragments of the information concerning you which was entered at any one of those other locations. Clerical errors may have occurred, resulting in subtle changes which, when combined with other subtle changes, can alter the nature of the information about you which appears at the Los Angeles computer.

So what, you say? There is absolutely no reason why the fragments of information about you from all of these files scattered around the countryside could not be collected from file drawers by clerks and mailed to the location in Los Angeles. The net effect could well be the same. True. But here's where the computer changes things. The difference is that it takes longer and is undoubtedly more expensive to transfer information by the manual technique. As a consequence, most organizations using manual record-keeping techniques simply don't go to the trouble of collecting information from a number of different files concerning a single individual.

Thus, in the past, your privacy has often been protected not by any particular desire on the part of a compant or a government agency to protect it, but by the inefficiency of the system. It has simply been too complicated a task to assemble all these bits and pieces about a small number of individuals, even those whose activities may have been of exceptional importance. With interconnected data bases, however, this process is vastly easier. Hence it is more attractive to the data base empire builders among us. As personal computers find their way to government offices and other places with easy access to data bases containig personal information more people will have that access. The temptation to spy on an individual grows with the ease of performing that surveillance.

Ah ha! that's the key: surveillance. The real threat from a Big Brother mentality may lie not so much in the mere storage of information about individuals, in the form of computer data bases, but the later use of the information to regulate the future activities of individuals. By keeping close track of you for an extended period of time I can much more easily predict what you're going to do next. If I don't like what I think you're going to do next, I can also more easily decide how best to stop you from doing it. I can limit your freedom of choice. Furthermore, if you don't even know that I'm keeping an eye on you, you'll be completely mystified by this sudden disappearance of your options, or will ascribe it to something other than my own actions. Truly insidious.

That is really the crux of the concern about individual privacy. The development of large computer systems, interconnected by telecommunications networks, containing all sorts of information about us as individuals, could be used to impose a level of regimentation on us which has seen no parallel in recorded history. Back to the top?

Are Personal Computers Little Brothers?

So far this discussion has revolved mostly around the use of large computers. How do personal computers affect the situation? Personal computer technology is not inherently different from that of the large computers used by the government and large private organizations. Personal computers are presently much more limited in their self-contained ability to collect and store huge amounts of information, but their capacity is increasing daily. For example, most personal computers available in 1980 could deal relatively easily with simple data files on individuals where the files could contain several hundred entries. Each entry would contain name, address, phone number and other distinguishing characteristics of the individual of interest to the owner of the data file, such as age, sex, purchasing habits, and the like, just as this same information might be kept by a credit bureau or a government agency.

Thus, one clear hypothetical possibility is that the advent of millions of personal computers would result in millions of new data bases being created which would contain information about individuals, each data base with a potential for invasion of personal privacy. The individual wishing to protect his/her privacy, to restrict the amount of personal information contained in computer data bases somewhere, is now faced with an explosion of potential abuses of personal privacy. Although computer technology has given us these new and less expensive ways to store all that information, it has not given us comparable means to suppress or prevent that storage.

Since the use of the personal computer will not be restricted to the private individual, small computer data bases can be set up, via personal computers, by your local merchants, other small businessmen and, of course, local branches of large and small government agencies. Each of these data bases has the possibility of coming up with the wrong assembly of information (because personal computers are even more stupid than big computers), having information which is obsolete and no longer applicable to you, or containing information which you do not feel is appropriate for the owner of the data base to have. The possibilities boggle the mind.

Before we march much farther down this path approaching hysteria (with the flag at the end stating "Your life is an open book"), we should take some time out to assess what the real threats are. One way to do this is to get a stack of three by five cards. On each of the cards, write down the name of an individual or organization who you think could conceivably want to establish a data base containing your name and particular personal characteristics about your life. Of course, a more efficient way of doing this, considering what we will do next, might be to enter all of this information into a series of records to be stored on a tape cassette or floppy disk by your personal computer. Develop your own data base. Now, establish three areas on the floor into which you are going to toss your 3X5" cards. Alternately, set up three index files into which you are going to sort the records in your data base. Label the first area "Good Guys," the second "Undecided," and the third "Bad Guys." Now, take each of these cards, one by one, and make a decision; into which pile are you going to toss it?

How do you decide? First, look at the card and decide what sorts of information the individual or organization named on the card would have to know about you in order to deal with you as he/she/it has in the past. If your past dealings with this organization or individual have been on strictly economic terms, the interest concerning you is likely to be confined to a relatively small number of items. If you purchase things regularly on a cash basis and have never passed a counterfeit bill, probably no information is required. If the transaction involves your handing over checks or credit cards, then some information is needed. If a check, have you ever had one bounce with this particular outfit? Is the transaction for an unusually large amount of money? If it involves credit, are you a good credit risk? Do you make payments on time?

While we are at it, we might want to jot down a few things about this individual or organization. From your point of view, is he/she/it a reputable character with whom to do business? If your transactions involve the purchase of items which can have faults or maintenance problems, do you get good service? And so on. You will see, as you build up these records about the people with whom you deal, that it may make it easier for you to decide where to get things in the future based on past experience, as embodied in your data base. It's also a good idea to keep a note as to whether there have been significant changes in their policies lately which might lead to a change in your future relationships. As you see, the sword cuts both ways.

The main point we are making is that for ordinary finanaical transactions between yourself and others, it is to both sides' best interest to maintain accurate and timely information about the reliability and fairness of your dealings with each other. Since the merchant must also be concerned with the costs of maintaining this information, there are distinct economic incentives to keep the amount of information in the record to the minimum necessary to conduct ordinary transactions. However, these economic arguments for minimizing the amout of information stored about you are steadily weakening as the cost of that storage in the merchant's prsonal computer diminishes. Even where a third party is involved, such as a credit bureau which maintains computer data files concerning your activities, the economic incentives and trends are the same.

On the other hand, if the files of the merchant or the credit bureau contain erroneous information (either erroneously positive or erroneously negative with respect to your character) they can incur an economic loss by taking improper action because of the wrong information. Of course, part of this loss is directly due to the influences of legislation which requires that you as an individual have the right of access to any file containing information about you, to challenge certain entries in that file, and to specify restrictions of access to the file. The other type of loss may come from their unsuccessful attempt to sell you something, or their failure to try to sell you something, because of a wrong impression of your purchasing desires. Therefore, there is a reasonable probability that you can toss most of the cards with the names of those persons or organizations with whom you have only economic transactions into the "Good Guys" pile.

Into the "Bad Guys" pile go the names associated with mere idle curiosity or downright evil intent concerning your affairs. These might include the neighborhood gossip, one or more of your in-laws, your ex-spouse, your local blackmailer or extortionist, the neighborhood burglar, and certain political figures or organizations whom you may suspect of having motives other than those you consider proper. All of these people may be putting their personal computers to these undesirable uses in the not-so-distant future. But before you include the Internal Revenue Service, the Bureau of the Census, and others of that ilk in this pile, don't forget that many governmental agencies have legal authority to inquire into your affairs. The best you can do in these cases, at the moment, is to use your personal computer to regularly send those agencies form letters requesting that they allow you to inspect any such records under the Privacy Act. If you still feel certain hostilities toward these agencies, put them in the "Undecided" pile.

After you complete sorting out your cards into these three piles, pick up one or two of the cards from the Bad Guys pile and review the number of items you imagined that these people would know about you. The chances are that you have a longer list on each of these cards than you do on a comparable one in the Good Guys pile, particularly if the Bad Guy is a government agency. This is the reason for the focus of a continuing series of legislative attempts to curb the information appetites of government agencies. But there always seems to be a lag between the occurrence of computer abuses and the official steps taken to curb them.

The issue of protection of information concerning you which may reside on computer data bases somewhere is far from resolved; nor is it likely to be resolved in the near future. The appearance of personal computers in large numbers makes the issue even more complex. A new job classification may well be called for, that of the information auditor, whose sole task, like that of the financial auditor, is to ensure that the information maintained about individuals and organizations in various data bases is timely, accurate, and appropriate to the legitimate needs of the owner of the data base. Back to the top?


An ancient method of protecting information is still useful in the computer age: encryption. The reason is that the simultaneous development of microcircuits and an obscure branch of mathematics allow the development of low-cost electronics that enable one to encrypt any message which is to be transmitted in digital form or to encrypt any data which is to be stored in digital form. Although the mathematics is relatively complicated, the process is quite simple. The heart of it is a microprocessor which converts an incoming sequence of bits containing a message in the "clear" such as "John's telephone number is 486-9735." to an apparently random stream of symbols such as "l%j)pD $lr;Jcnl4 pel.Gs s+ w&Rtutxp."

In some cases this encryption capability is on several chips instead of a single one, but the consequence is roughly the same. The resulting message is practically undecipherable. Only the sender and the authorized receiver of the message can know what's in it. The reason for the "practically" is that no known encoding technique can be proven (so far) to be absolutely undecipherable. Therefore, one of the chips which is now or soon will be commercially available could conceivably come up with a coded message which could be deciphered by a big enough computer in some finite amount of time, say ten or twelve years or even less. However, the chances that anyone would devote a large computer full time for that period to decipher a single message are extremely small, unless it is a very important message indeed. Most likely, by the time the message is deciphered, the information would no longer be valuable (John's telephone number might even have changed by then).

As is the case with data base technology, encryption is also a two-edged sword. If you are seriously interested in protecting either the information you have stored on your data base or in protecting transmissions you may send to other computers by a telecommunications link, you can encrypt the information relatively inexpensively. Only you and those to whom you give the "key" will be able to get the original information out of the encrypted data. This is of great importance for such innovations as electronic funds transfer, for example. One of the unique things about the particular functions used for encrypting information is that you can make the key to your encryption device public and not worry about others being able to "crack" your code. (For a summary description of the techniques see the August 1979 issue of Scientific American, "The Mathematics of Public Key Cryptography." by Martin E. Hellman.)

Suppose that you want to transfer an amount of money from one of your bank accounts to another one and that you want to make absolutely sure that the transaction is complete. Furthermore, you don't want to leave your home while you're doing it. First, you dial up your local bank's computer via your personal computer and modem. The bank computer gives you its public key (unless you already have it on file in your own computer). You use this key to encrypt your message to the bank via the encryption chips in your computer. This message contains all of the information you wish to transmit concerning the account to which the money is to be sent and so forth. You also give the bank's computer your public key which it uses to decipher your message. The secret to this process is that both you and the bank have public as well as private keys. The public and private keys are related to each other by a mathematical process. Knowing the process and the public key, but not the private key, does not allow you to decipher the message. But, assuming that your computer and the bank's both use the same process, your use of your private key, together with the bank's public key and the bank's subsequent use of its private key with your public key results in a unique combination as valid as if you had gone down to the bank and signed the order for the transfer of funds in person. At least, that's the theory; it has not yet been tested in courts.

Aside from its use in guaranteeing the integrity of computer telecommunications, this form of encryption also can be used to gurarantee that only authorized persons have access to the data bases containing information about you. You could require that information about you held by others in computer data bases could be entered only using your public key in the encryption process. You could also require that all transmissions to others of data concerning you have to go through your computer's encryption/decryption system en route so that you could maintain a verifiable record of who received what information. Of course, others could demand the same process for any information you might have on your computer concerning them, ad infinitum. Do you sometimes get the feeling that each new technological "solution" to a problem brings on a new set of problems of its own? Back to the top?

Your Right to Solitude

Although protection of information concerning yourself and your affairs is certainly a popular concern of Americans, another concern for privacy protection is also receiving increasing attention. This other concern is with the protection of solitude, the right to be left alone. It is a little paradoxical that in our age of increasing urbanization, for which many complain that they feel isolated from their fellows, there are also growing complaints of information intrusion. The most prevalent form of this intrusion right now is junk mail. Junk telephone calls have also been on the rise, prompting legislation in several states to restrict this form of intrusion on your privacy. In some cases, microcomputers have helped increase this form of information pollution, because of their automatic dialing and message transmission capabilities. Someone wishing to sell you the latest whizbang can program a microcomputer to examine its data base of likely whizbang prospects, extract their phone numbers, dial them, transmit a prerecorded message, and signal a human operator to accept the order if it finds that you are still listening after the message has been transmitted. Clearly, your tactic in this escalating information war is to have your own personal computer intercept all such messages and throw them out. The problem, of course, is that it may throw out a few good messages along with the bad. Of course, once the saleman's computer finds that it is talking to another computer, it can switch to digital messages, rather than voice and just send you the text for your electronic mailbox. This results in a shorter phone call, the sales computer can dial more prospects per hour, and its productivity increases.

A primary factor in the growth or failure of the electronic junk mail industry—aside from legal bans on its existence—will be the relative cost of telecommunications versus the postal service as a means for delivery of the advertising message. If postal rates increase faster than the rates for electronic message services, then we can expect to see increasing pressure for junk electronic mail. At the same time, because of the escalating costs of mass mailings of either sort, advertisers will spend more and more time culling through available data bases to increase the prospect that the potential customer to whom they are about to send their message is interested in the product advertised. Possibly it will all even out. You will get the same amount of junk mail, but it may be more suitable.

Obscene computer mail is another problem altogether. Back to the top?

Democracy versus Totalitarianism: Does the PC Matter?

The implications of the big brother mentality are not just those of annoyance, of concern that bad, erroneous or improper information about you may be circulating or that computer data bases and electronic message services allow more efficient intrusions on your desires for solitude. The real threat that people see in this new set of technological capabilities is that the development of a totalitarian form of government, with rigid centralized control over our lives, is that much easier. So far, I have concentrated on the capability of microcomputers to make some aspects of this even worse. Yet, to round out this often dismal picture of the effects of technology on the political process and vice versa we should examine one more aspect of the use of personal computers: the instant political action network.

This was touched upon briefly in Chapter 3. The object in one of the scenarios then was the organization of a small group to fight development of an area which the group wanted to protect as a wildlife preserve. Yet this concept can easily be extended to many other forms of political activity. The primary technological requirements are, in addition to a political agenda of some sort—

As is the case for so many other things, personal computers can act to increase the rate and scope of communication, the cohesiveness, and/or fluidity of political groups just as much as they can for businesses and individuals. Personal computers can control the data bases, send electronic messages to the participants^-^the membership of the group^-^, aid in arriving at a consensus, via automated polling techniques, and transmit messages to those whom the political group wishes to influence. During this process portions or all of the transactions can be kept secret by means of the encryption techniques discussed previously, or simply because the systems containing them are highly portable.

A totalitarian government wishing to ensure that its citizens continue to toe the line and obey all government policies had better also ensure that encryption technologies are not made available to individual citizens and that existing computers not be allowed to communicate with each other. The danger of that occurring in the United States is extremely remote, but should never be considered to be impossible. Communicating personal computers can provide another safeguard for ensuring that the popular wishes are reflected in the actions of the government, and all that that implies. One view of political systems is that of an inverted U. Totalitarianism is the bottom of one leg of the U, anarchy at the other. Here we sit somewhere around the top in a precarious and unstable equilibrium. Information technologies keep adding grease to our roller skates. Back to the top?

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