National Geographic : 1970 Nov
The master file... A worker gathers reels of magnetic tape in the computer library of the Social Security Administration in Baltimore, Maryland. The tapes will go into one of the daily computer runs that calculate pay ments and keep up records on the 193,000,000 credit-bureau file. You say, 'Not a chance in my case.' Don't be so sure; it has happened." The National Academy of Sciences, mind ful of computerized data banks being set up at every level of government, is sponsoring a nationwide study of the problems thus posed for individual privacy and due process of law. How does a citizen know what information about him is going into a data bank? He doesn't know. Some is highly personal. Say you want to buy a house and apply to the Federal Housing Administration for a feder ally guaranteed loan. Your file will contain a credit-bureau investigator's report of wheth er your marriage is in trouble-because, says FHA, divorce is a leading cause for default ing on housing loans, and what's wrong with weeding out the worst of the poor risks? What if in the future FHA should exchange tapes with other agencies, as has been sug gested? Then somebody else's idea of your 630 people who hold or have held Social Security numbers. Each capable of recording a maxi mum of 1,600 magnetized spots to the inch and stretching 2,400 feet, the agency's 170,000 tapes make up one of the world's largest collections of computerized information. domestic life might be all over the place. How could you correct inaccurate informa tion about you once it was in the government data banks? As things stand now, you couldn't. An error in a personnel file, put in from some extraneous tape, could cost a civil servant a promotion. Or keep a man from getting a job. Chances are he would never know why. Machines Hold Power for Evil and Good Directing the Academy of Science's study is Alan F. Westin, Professor of Public Law and Government at Columbia University. 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 informa tion and the powerful technology of comput ers reverse this historical process in the second half of the 20th century, making us 'subjects'