Friday, 21 June 2013

Surveillance and Data Processing

The Guardian's revelations about NSA PRISM and widespread surveillance using common internet tools, NSA Internet is arguably the story of the year. 

It must be, the British government have sent a DA-Notice to the British press telling them to keep quiet about it. Unsurprisingly, this has shown most of the British media to be both compliant and hypocritical, and has put their desire to knock the Guardian in conflict with an instinct to do what the government tells them.

A government carrying out widespread surveillance on its own citizens? This is a concept most Germans  are familiar with. The movie, The Lives of Others dramatises the surveillance state of the DDR. It is remarkable in its depiction of the huge effort that the state deployed in monitoring the behaviour of its citizens.

However, as the poster depicts, in post war east Germany surveillance had to be done the old fashioned way. With phone taps and hidden microphones and some poor bastard listening to couples making love on a set of headphones.

The present day situation automates all that. But widespread monitoring and computer assisted searching of vast amounts of data, does have a precursor. As revealed in Edwin Black's, IBM_and_the_Holocaust using data processing equipment to monitor individuals and, crucially, search massive amounts of information, was pioneered by the Nazis and finds its roots in the 1930s. 

In the days before computers were invented data processing systems, databases of massive amounts of punched cards read by mechanical card readers, allowed the Nazis to establish the degree of 'Jewishness' of all their citizens, and, as they expanded through Europe, the citizens of other countries.

Dehomag, the 90% owned German subsidiary of IBM used the national census information. This was encoded on punched cards and could be searched to identify citizens with Jewish ancestry. Eventually the census data was extended by extracting ancestral history from the record books held in churches. IBM/Dehomag devised a data input procedure where the records in the church books could be  'punched up' and added to the database of cards. A degree of Jewishness for all citizens, from none to full blooded jew, in 16 increments, was recorded.

And later, when the extermination camps moved into high gear, IBM/Dehomag could search the card database and have the names and addresses of the 'candidates' all ready.

An alliance between national security and industry to store and analyse massive amounts of data?  Who'd have thought it? 

But, as the British Foreign Secretary William Hague put it, 'if you've done nothing wrong you've nothing to fear.' I'm sure.

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