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The End of Privacy Began in the 1960s

Choices that Congress made decades ago allowed tech giants to become as powerful as they are.

This article was written by Margaret O’Mara and originally published Dec. 5, 2018 in the New York Times. It has been copied below with the authors’ consent.

Mariner photos presented to President Johnson — 1965 — NASA on The Commons — DESCRIPTION: Description: Dr. William H. Pickering, (left) Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory presents Mariner spacecraft photos to President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

But there were many Americans who were worried about privacy — from civil rights leaders and student activists under surveillance by the F.B.I. to lawmakers who had begun to question J. Edgar Hoover’s use of his electronic arsenal — and the National Data Bank confirmed their darkest fears. In the years that followed, Congress convened headline-making hearings, slamming the databank idea and warning of government information-gathering run amok.

The privacy warriors of the 1960s would have been astounded by what the tech industry has become. They would be more amazed to realize that the policy choices they made back then — to demand data transparency rather than limit data collection, and to legislate the behavior of government but not private industry — enabled today’s tech giants to become as large and powerful as they are.

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to question Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google, over allegations of bias in its algorithms, and energized Democrats are vowing to turn up the heat on tech companies over antitrust and privacy when they take over House leadership in January. There is a growing recognition in Silicon Valley and Washington that current data privacy regulations need to be changed. Understanding how American lawmakers approached these issues in the past is essential to getting it right this time.

The mid-1960s were the heyday of punch-card-powered mainframe computers. In the two decades since their invention, digital machines had proved capable of processing a dizzying amount of information. Much of this data was personal, from medical information to military records to the type of cereal families bought at the supermarket, and there were no legal limits on what kind of data could be collected or by whom. The targeted marketing business until then had been largely left alone by regulators because it was so inexact. The computer age, however, transformed consumer targeting into a far more powerful science.

Worries about data privacy erupted in the spring of 1964 with the publication of “The Naked Society,” by Vance Packard, a journalist best known for his unsparing critique of modern advertising. “The Naked Society” made a comparable assessment of the marketing schemes of big corporations, noting their immense and profitable traffic in personal data about American consumers. But he trained most of his attention on the entity that was then the largest user of mainframe computing power: the United States government.

Unnerving amounts of personal information now could be sucked into bureaucratic databases, Packard observed. “There are banks of giant memory machines that conceivably could recall in a few seconds every pertinent action — including failures, embarrassments or possibly incriminating acts — from the lifetime of each citizen,” he wrote.

Packard hit a nerve. Congress convened a Special Subcommittee on the Invasion of Privacy and started hearings into the government’s databank proposal in July 1966. The leading privacy crusader in the House, New Jersey’s Neil Gallagher, was a Johnson ally who believed that the databank had some merit but that the plan didn’t do enough to protect personal information. On the Senate side, North Carolina’s Sam Ervin was a critic of the president’s expansive domestic agenda and saw the databank as yet another sign of executive overreach. “The computer never forgets,” Ervin warned.

Amid the growing distrust of the government’s decisions in Vietnam, the threat of computer databases became irresistible media fodder. “Would It Threaten Your Privacy?” a headline in The New York Times asked. “The names of most Americans appear repeatedly in government files,” The Times noted, “for a total of nearly 2.8 billion listings.”

The uproar killed the National Data Bank. Over 100 pieces of data privacy legislation were introduced over the following years. The few that passed were landmarks — the Freedom of Information Act in 1967, the Fair Credit Reporting Act in 1970, and the Privacy Act in 1974 — but all of them focused on individuals’ right to know about the information these databases held. None addressed the question of whether this information should have been gathered in the first place.

The push for data transparency rather than data restriction was in keeping with American legal precedents and political traditions that long predated the computer age. As the legal scholar Alan Westin observed in 1967, the United States cherished both individual privacy and the free flow of information, and the latter value usually prevailed. This was a contrast to Western Europe, where privacy was something to be carefully protected, and therefore treated with a far more robust regulatory approach.

In being so relentlessly focused on the government’s use and abuse of data, Congress paid little attention to what private industry was doing. American companies remained free to gather data on the people who used their products.

Congress is again wrestling with the balance between freedom of information and the right to privacy. Proposals for greater transparency — such as labeling bots so people know when they are interacting with a machine, and providing access for consumers to the data that companies obtain about them — are important first steps. But industry and lawmakers need to take a hard look at the data that companies are allowed to collect in the first place.

Congress should recognize what it did not half a century ago: protecting privacy is bigger than quashing one databank, condemning one company or curbing one industry. And the decisions made now will shape technological generations to come.

The computer never forgets.

Margaret O’Mara is a professor of history at the University of Washington and the author of a forthcoming book: “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.”



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