Saturday, February 01, 2014

Beyond The Computer Revolution - How the 1970's predicted the rise of the NSA

Whilst browsing through an old copy of National Geographic from November 1970, I came across this quote from an article entitled, Behold The Computer Revolution.

"What if computer-equipped authority, insufficiently restrained, should turn hyper-inquisitive someday? If every purchase one makes, down to the last 10-cent newspaper, is recorded by a computer, showing where it 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. Wiesner, 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?"
That frightening glimpse into a nightmarish future has become reality with government organisations such as the NSA and GCHQ using computer systems millions of times more powerful than the lumbering beasts depicted in the article, systems so powerful that they can hoover data in the form of phone calls, emails, internet surfing patterns and the like from the entire planet. 
Yet such data is collected and used with no thought given to the rights of US and non-US citizens alike, it's scale so vast and so inclusive that such oversight has become, in the words of Wiesner, "an instrument of tyranny".
Alan F. Westin, Professor of Public Law and Government at Columbia University, quoted in the article did have an interesting suggestion to counteract this growing electronic suppression of our rights as individuals, an idea that goes back to the very dawn of the English legal system,
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 courts to 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.”

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