There has been some debate about whether the information leaked by Edward Snowden should
warrant a lifetime prison sentence, or a Nobel Prize, or perhaps a Congressional Medal. For over a
year now Snowden has been telling the world the extent to which our digital communications are
captured and monitored by the U.S government. Your viewpoint about Snowden will almost
certainly depend on how you feel about the imperial militaristic and trading empire that has been
built up by the United States over the last 100 years. That empire stripped and replaced a smaller
British empire as the dominant world power over the course of two world wars. Much like the
Roman Empire 2000 years previously, military and economic power has been used to establish
trade terms very favourable for the United States such that many of the largest businesses in the
world are now wholly owned by America. Therefore it should not be surprising to learn that
America's technological power has also been used to further its military and economic interests.
Yet the shock-wave of astonishment felt around the world, that even the German Chancellors
mobile phone was monitored as well as entire countries' Internet traffic, revealed the extent of
general ignorance about the matter.
It seems that most people thought the Internet was a free and uncontrolled environment within
which broadcasted personal expression would go unrecorded and unremarked, apart from among
one’s intimates. Although I had given talks and lectures since 2005 about how online advertising
tracking systems like Google represent a major threat to privacy, I only became aware myself that
governments could capture so much data and control the use of the Internet, in early December
2010. For that information I'm indebted to Snowden's predecessor, Julian Assange and his
WikiLeaks organisation. What I learnt at the time from a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable, was that in
the spring of 2010 China’s State Council Information Office delivered a jubilant report to the
Chinese leadership. Chinese officials had been concerned that the Internet could not be corralled,
and now they were being told the Internet was fundamentally controllable. I realised then, if China
had control of the Internet, the U.S., who originated many of the Web's protocols, must also have
control. But what I didn't know until Edward Snowden's leak was the extent that U.S. monitoring
and governance of the Web relies on close co-operation with Britain.
This time last year I wrote about why, for geographic, technical and legal reasons, the British
Government was also involved. The question I asked was how much all this data capture and
storage was costing, and what proportion of this undoubtedly vast sum was being paid by British
taxpayers. Look at the Cisco forecast of growth in data being transmitted via the Internet in the
chart above and you will see why storage will continue to be an enormous problem. In a digital
environment, capturing any amount of data is relatively easy compared with storing and analysing
it – this applies equally to advertising networks like Google, and America's National Security Agency
(NSA). So I'm certain that novel techniques are already being applied to these twin problems.
What I didn't recognise, until Snowden suggested it, is that such new techniques are more likely to
be tried out on the hapless British population first due to our government’s poor oversight. Not
that I think American governance is that much better, as multi-national companies seem to manage
to avoid supervision if they wish...
But, if you believe that using technology to capture and analyse personal data is a new
phenomenon then I would argue that only today’s global scale is different. Way back in the 1930s,
IBM (the Google of their day) supplied, maintained and serviced the census technology for Adolf
Hitler and the Nazi Party which enabled it to measure, track and locate its victims with the aim of
achieving “racial hygiene.” Firstly the physically or mentally disabled were rounded up and
incarcerated, then the homosexuals, then the gypsies, and then the Jews. This was being carried out
at a time when there was a popular American boycott of trading with Germany. So on paper IBM
Germany was a German company called Dehomag and this is what the Nazis, along with all of
Germany, believed. In reality the company was initially 90% and then later wholly owned by IBM in
the U.S. but by keeping their Dehomag ownership secret they were able to avert the German trade
boycott. While the Nazis were inordinately proud of IBM’s clever techniques, the company was
clandestinely buoyed up with loans from IBM in the U.S. to avoid paying German tax. Conversely,
in America, IBM avoided paying German overseas tax by offsetting these loans while disbursing the
profits through other IBM companies in Europe. If this seems to be ringing a few bells, I might
remind you that this kind of jiggery-pokery is not dissimilar to the stratagems currently being used
by American companies like Google, Amazon and eBay to duck paying tax in America or Europe.
The technology that IBM was leasing to the Nazis was the precursor of the mainframe computer –
the Hollerith punched card system. IBM's business strategy is familiar to us today, yet it was highly
unusual at that time. The IBM hardware was only leased and never sold. Just the consumables, the
specially designed paper cards for punching, were sold. Part of those lease agreements were that
the punched cards, because they were produced to a very tight specification, could only be
purchased from IBM. From 1933 onwards, the requirements for the Nazi censuses and the
industrial reorganisation needed for rearmament, pushed IBM through many rapid development
cycles. The card punching, optical card readers, and sorting and collating machinery were all
necessary to provide the cross tabulated information from the data punched onto the cards. This
work formed much of the basis for the design and construction of early IBM mainframe computers
that were dependent on high speed punched card operations. Indeed, until the mid-1970s, most
input to computers was via punched cards.
The process that IBM was embarking on back in the 1930s was a binary record of the German
nation and industry. This included vastly expanded data collection at a level of detail never
captured before. Leased IBM machines sorted and cross tabulated all the data enabling German
industry to achieve its legendary levels of efficiency. Back then there was a world trade recession,
but not for IBM. The German Third Reich purchased 1.5 billion Hollerith punched cards every year
as the country re-armed. And naturally, IBM's punched cards continued to be used to efficiently
record, measure and track the poor wretches the Third Reich wanted to eliminate as they pursued
their racial purity agenda. Data was captured from handwritten forms, like the one illustrated on
the slide above, and punched onto Hollerith cards for automated high-speed processing. For
example, on an SS punched card, there were sixteen coded categories of prisoner listed on
columns three and four of each card. If hole 3 was punched this meant homosexual, hole 8 meant
Jew, hole 9 was reserved for anti-social behaviour, hole 12 for Gypsies. Ominously column 34 was
used to record: “Reason for Departure,” and code 6 was punched to mean: “special handling,” a
euphemism for extermination. To minimise errors, the master identification number on the
punched card was also tattooed on the wrist of the person it identified. All this harrowing
information comes from the well-researched book IBM and the Holocaust, by Edwin Black. You can
read the first chapter online by following this link.
Nowadays, recording data via IBM's punched cards has been superseded by the digital footprints
we leave on servers in data centres as we interact with our computers and mobile phones using the
Internet. Combined with other data sources, this information allows a level of knowledge about
any individual that can at times exceed even their own self-knowledge. I can't remember that eight
years ago on a trip to New York what I was considering to buy as gift for my wife, although Google
can. Like the invention of fire this information can be used for either good or ill. Just as the
punched card was used to increase industrial efficiency it was also used to adeptly eradicate
people, people like us.
The information collected by the NSA and GCHQ can protect us, yet it can just as easily be used
against us. Here in Britain we already are the most observed society on the globe. As a result of
bomb threats and police cuts we have approximately five million surveillance cameras located
mostly in urban areas throughout the country. That is nearly one camera for every eleven people.
Few individuals in the U.K. feel threatened by this level of intrusion by the digital recording of their
personal lives because of the perceived benefits. We are aware that many crimes are averted, or
solved, because perpetrators can be tracked via the vast network of cameras, and we can see those
advantages of the system displayed vividly every day on our TV screens and in newspapers.
Unfortunately though we, the public, don't get to see the results of any protection the NSA and
GCHQ data collection provides, although this is done at vast expense to the public purse that we all
fill. Oversight and integrity is obviously needed, although we already know that in the case of
multi-national organisations, like IBM in the 1930s, this can so easily be forestalled. Perhaps the
sobering lesson to be gleaned from this story is that however positively technology is exploited, at
some point in time it will also be used for destructive purposes.
...with analysis & insight...
A warning from history...