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