TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: A Quaint Relic From Our Archives on Computer Spying

A Quaint Relic From Our Archives on Computer Spying
Fri, 15 Jun 2007 12:00:00 CDT

For a special treat this weekend, I have a book review on the 'Rise of
the Computer State' which was published more than 23 years ago in this
Digest, in 1984, when people were talking about the book by the same
name which had been published thirty or forty years before _that_.
I assume David Burnham who wrote the book we are reviewing today, has
himself grown wiser over the years. In fact, if he is still around, he
might favor us with a 2007 'revision'. I think Rob Kling might have
grown more wise also.

As usual, ignore all these email addresses; I doubt any of them are
used any longer.



11-Jan-84 22:49:51-PST,24630;000000000000
Return-path: <Kling%UCI@USC-ECL>
Mail-from: DECNET site ECLA rcvd at 11-Jan-84 2248-PST
Date: 11 Jan 1984 1353-PST
From: Rob-Kling <Kling%UCI@USC-ECL>
Subject: Review- Rise of the Computer State
To: telecom@USC-ECLC
Received: from UCI-20b by UCI-750a; 11 Jan 84 14:08:56 PST (Wed)
Via: UCI; 11 Jan 84 21:21-PDT
Via: Usc-Cse; 11 Jan 84 22:41:56

Rise of the Computer State by David Burnham
Published by Random House, New York - 1983.

Review by Rob Kling
Department of Information and Computer Science
University of California, Irvine

This book examines the ways that Federal agencies and elected

officials have employed computer-based information systems (CBIS) to

increase their power unfairly. Burnham's main theses are: 1) that

CBIS have often been effective media for extending the surveillance

potential of the host organization; 2) overall, citizens have lost

substantial power in their routine dealings with computer-using

organizations; 3) attempts to regulate the use of CBIS containing

personal records have been frail and largely ineffective relative to

the scale of operations that should be regulated; 4) some

organizations which employ sophisticated CBIS for intelligence, such

as the National Security Agency, are unaccountable to the larger


These theses have a sinister tinge. As we enter 1984, the United

States is far from a police state. However, Burnham fears that the

slow, steady, consistent adoption of new surveillance systems and the

expansion of existing ones is eroding democratic political processes

in the United States. If he is correct, these are arguably the most

important consequences of computerization in the United States.

This is a trade book aimed at the same audience that reads

"Megatrends", "The Third Wave", or "Fifth Generation". Unlike these

highly popular books which are permeated with happy talk about the

social possibilities of widespread computerization, "The Rise of the

Computer State" examines the seamy underside of organizations that

employ CBIS to collect, manipulate, and communicate sensitive data

about all of us.

Burnham, a New York Times reporter, has written this book for a

popular audience. Its strengths lie in Burnham's sensitivity to the

civil liberties issues in practices that might simply appear

"expeditious" and in his eye for graphic detail in explaining how

organizations employ CBIS to make their operations efficient and


Burnham examines two themes that link computerization with a

certain kind of organizational power: surveillance of "targeted"

people or groups and opinion polling. In a separate chapter he

examines the National Security Agency which he labels "the ultimate

computer bureaucracy."


Some organizations act under legislative mandates that many

people would label "pro-social". For example, the Bureau of Child

Support of the Los Angeles District Attorney's office uses CBIS to

seize California State tax refunds from certain runaway fathers who

are delinquent in their child support payments. A second group act

within the boundaries of legal, but unduly permissive information

practices. For example, a company called U.D. Registry provides

landlords with histories of disputes with previous landlords,

maintains records which are usually unknown to tenants and does little

to insure that they are treated fairly. A third group of

organizations engage in action that are either illegal or nearly so.

For example, U.S. Army's surveillance of liberal and leftist activists

in the late 1960's, extended well beyond the scope of "national

security." Burnham portrays these activities with sharp detail that

give color to routine practices and their participants.

Burnham is a staunch civil libertarian and sees all social

surveillance as problematic. It is easiest to criticize organizations

like the U.S. Army when they intrude upon political minorities and

thereby threaten First amendment rights. It is also easy to criticize

some of the "holes" in CBIS such as those operated by U.D. Registry,

which are unknown to people on whom records are kept, and who are not

legally obligated to enable people to see their records, correct

errors, or annotate their files case of disputes.

Burnham's criticisms reach much further than identifying the

problems with CBIS employed by the second and third groups of

organizations. He questions the first group as well. Burnham's

questions about organizations and systems for tracking runaway fathers

who leave their children on welfare illustrates of his concerns about

social strategies which depend upon extensive surveillance for

enforcement: 1) will the original target group be slowly enlarged

until it is much larger than originally intended in the enabling

legislation? 2) can the information system be extended by local

officials for surveillance upon "others who fall into disfavor?"

Burnham reports how the scope of these systems has expanded from

locating parents who were avoiding child support payments and whose

children were receiving funds from Federal welfare programs to include

any parent whose (ex)spouse seeks the other parent of their children.

Burnham notes that there are few constitutional limits on the scope of

such an surveillance system. Why not, for example, expand its scope

so that creditors can track down their debtors? Or why not expand it

expand it so that people can locate lost relatives and old friends?

While these "information needs" are less heart wrenching than the

situations of women who turn to public assistance when their

ex-husbands refuse to pay court-mandated child support, they are also

"pro-social." Burnham argues that little prevents surveillance systems

such as this one from being slowly expanded to track ever larger

groups of people than legislative sentiment and a fragile coalition of

legislators who are sympathetic to civil liberties values.

Burnham uses this example to illustrate another key feature of

recent surveillance systems: records systems which are set up for

rather narrow purposes of one organization are used by investigators

in another organization. The Parent Locator System, for example, is

not a particular, specialized CBIS. Rather, it is a set of procedures

and arrangements which enable certain investigators to send lists of

"missing parents" to the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security

Administration, the Defense Department, the Veterans Administration,

and the National Personnel Center. Each of these organizations honors

these requests, searches its CBIS for the current locations of the

"missing parents" and returns the information to the requestors on

magnetic tape.

While many CBIS could be operated as manual systems, these

searches would be prohibitively expensive add-ons with manual record

systems. However, the marginal costs of search are affordable with

computerized record systems. The Parent Locator "System" is one of

many "matching programs" in which public agencies use existing files

to search for deviants. Organizational payroll files have been

"matched" against welfare files to find gainfully employed people who

are committing welfare fraud. State Department of Motor Vehicle files

have been matched with Selective Service files to identify eligible 18

year olds who have not registered for the draft. In each of these

cases, the records of thousands of people who have broken no laws are

matched to find the few that have. Burnham finds the principle

offensive, even though the applications are expedient and have so far

have been aimed at lawbreakers. In his eyes, expediency and

efficiency should not be preeminent values for administrative action.


Burnham briefly examines some of the Federal privacy initiatives

of the last decade, including the Privacy Act of 1974, the proposals

of the Privacy Protection Study Commission, and the 1978 Financial

Right to Privacy Act. These laws have provided minimal protections,

and important protections of the Federal Right to Privacy Act have

been undermined in implementation by Federal agencies under Ford,

Carter, and Reagan. Only a few of the 155 recommendations reported by

the Privacy Protection Study Commission in 1977 have been enacted in


Burnham mentions these laws and examines some of their

limitations. However, he doesn't evaluate their potential. Would

many of the problems of CBIS operated by firms like the U.D. Registry

be ameliorated if they were brought under laws like the Fair Credit

Reporting Act? Would civil liberties be better protected if the

remaining recommendations of the Privacy Protection Study Commission

were enacted in law? Unfortunately, Burnham is mute about these


Burnham is strongest in identifying concrete problems. Most

serious there is no permanent institutional counterweight to Federal

agencies when they propose new, more efficient, or enlarged personal

record systems. Agencies such as the FBI, the IRS, or the Social

Security Administration can return to Congress every few years with

proposals for massive CBIS which have problematic privacy aspects and

expect that sooner or later, the civil libertarians who restricted

their last proposal will be weaker or pre-occupied with other matters.


Burnham examines opinion polling as another form of

organizational intelligence which has been rendered substantially more

efficient and sophisticated by computers. He views opinion polling by

elected officials and organizations which are campaigning for specific

legislation as selective intelligence which places the target public

at an unfair disadvantage. The main problem he sees in market

research in the service of electoral politics is the extent to which

it helps make propaganda less transparent and the public more

manipulable by marketing strategists who target different messages to

different groups. While there is nothing new in political actors

tailoring their appeals to different audiences, Burnham fears that the

modern versions of sophistry are less obvious and consequently far

more successful for those who can afford to employ them.

He also views opinion polls as easily subject to manipulation by

politicians seeking legitimacy or publicity. Polling is not simply a

reporting device. Pollers gain leverage relative to the larger public

since much of the audience for polls will read headlines and short

news items which distort the scientific meaning of a poll by

neglecting to explain the nature of the sample, the detailed

distribution of responses, or the questions asked. Political polling

is not only "information gathering;" it can be a devise for persuading

larger publics about the popularity of one's position.


In a dramatic chapter, Burnham reports how the National Security

Agency (NSA) has operated under a charter which has remained secret it

was initiated by President Truman in 1952. The NSA specializes in

electronic surveillance. A large fraction of its efforts probably go

to observing military force deployments and strategic resources

worldwide. Burnham reports how the NSA has also illegally

eavesdropped on a significant fraction of international telephone

calls and telex messages which leave the United States.

Burnham reports on the character of specific programs of domestic

surveillance which were illegal. According to Burnham, the NSA

developed files on political dissidents including civil rights

activists, antiwar activists, members of Congress, and ordinary

citizens who were critical of official government policies. While

most of the domestic political surveillance appeared to take place in

the late 1960's through mid-1970's, the shroud of secrecy that

surrounds the NSA makes it difficult to have significant Congressional

oversight of its policies and practices.

During the last 5 years, the NSA has moved to control

cryptographic research in the United States. Recently developed

encryption schemes are based on sophisticated algorithms which require

digital circuits for rapid coding and decoding. Some of the new

schemes even allow the code keys to be public, rather than secret. As

more business operations in the United States is computerized,

organizations seek ways to protect the privacy of data such as large

funds transfers. Thus the market for efficient and effective data

encryption devices has expanded beyond the intelligence community to

include financial institutions.

The NSA has recently taken control of this research out of the

hands of the National Science Foundation, even though it has no

publicly documented legal mandate for its action. There are deep

policy questions about whether national security is well served by the

availability of cheap encrypting devices which are effectively

unbreakable. These questions are not being raised in public debates,

nor does Burnham shed much light on them. Rather he simply adopts the

libertarian critique of surveillance. Like other political labels

with strong moral content, it has been abused as a cover for unsavory

actions carried out by government operatives. The term in not wholly

vacuous and Burnham glosses most of the knotty policy issues.


Burnham's theses are loosely fabricated from dramatic examples.

He does not offer explicit hypotheses, strong organizing concepts, and

a way of placing his examples in a context which enables a reader to

understand their overall significance. Examples of bad outcomes can

elicit sympathy for "victims." But systematic information about the

frequency and extent of problems and abuses are necessary to

demonstrate that the overall social setup within which they happen is

badly flawed, corrupt, or perverse. Some of his examples of people

victimized by slips in CBIS and organizational practices suggest that

Kafka has provided better guiding images than Orwell for appreciating

a computer-based, mobile, organizational society.

Burnham has little taste for irony, and explores Orwellian abuse

rather than Kafkaesque happenings. Do the events Burnham describes

indicate that Federal agencies and other large computer users are

pushing the the US along a path of political development that is

leading to a much less democratic form of Federal government?

Unfortunately, Burnham does not describe the changing nature of

Congressional oversight and public accountability sufficiently well to

provide a clear answer to that question. He succeeds in generating

sentiments in favor of this hypothesis by his accumulated cases of

organizational seaminess and occasional abuse. But he relies heavily

upon a reader's distrust of elected officials and large bureaucracies

to help cement his case. He also relies upon general theses about

power, such as Lord Acton's maxim. Unchecked power often corrupts and

organizations are often less willing to be fair to their clients than

efficient and autonomous. But general principles do not make the

particular case since the variations in actual organizational

practices are significant and vast.

One peculiar feature of contemporary police states, such as those

in Eastern Europe and Latin America, is the extent to which they have

relied upon low technologies for extensive social control and even

mass terror. Many abusive ruling cliques rely upon neighborhood

informants, secret trials, and mysterious disappearances to maintain

control. They don't need database management systems, teleprocessing,

and spy satellites. Low technology strategies are especially

effective in "small town" societies.

Burnham's implicit argument is that less obtrusive forms of

surveillance and social control can harm the political culture of

liberal democracies. CBIS are attractive to administrators and

politicians because they promise heightened efficiencies and sometimes

enhanced fairness in providing services to large mobile populations.

However, the anecdotes of errors with a human cost and even abuses

which Burnham piles on the reader, illustrate problems but do not make

his case.

Burnham's strongest case is his critique of the NSA's abuses of

authority. Like, the secret Law Enforcement Intelligence Units, much

of the problem with the NSA comes from its shroud of secrecy and

freedom from significant legislative oversight. It's use of

computer-based monitoring systems is incidental to its problematic

place in American political life.

I suspect that one basic issue is accountability of these

agencies to the public through the legislatures. At times this is no

easy task when the administrative agencies can shroud their actions

with the complexities of high technologies. There is a strong case to

be made that in the clashes between branches of government,

administrative agencies have found legal and technological loopholes

to temporarily free themselves from regulatory restraint.

Congressional actions are not always right. But there is an argument

that administrative agencies have been able to exploit computer-based

technologies to shift the balance of governmental power away from

elected officials. This systematic shift of power has been best

documented in the case of local governments. It is likely to be

happening at other governmental levels as well.


Burnham is sensitive to the shifts of power to executive

agencies. But he is at a loss to explain them very well. He misses

the deeper politics of computing. I find a clue to his misperception,

a very common one, in his reference to "the computer's system of

thinking." For Burnham, CBIS are simply highly structured, logical,

possibly hierarchical information processing "tools." He misses the

ways in which CBIS designs often reflect the "systems of thinking" of

those who propose them. CBIS promoters may label their preferences as

"required by computers" to help their case, but they often ignore or

discourage many technical and administrative alternatives.

Many CBIS are usefully viewed as forms of social organization.

They are composed of many layers of data, programs, and communications

support stretched across different organizations. Those who oversee

them need some ability to appreciate technical alternatives and also

have some substantive expertise in the organizational functions which

have computer support. This dual expertise is rare, particularly

among elected officials at all levels of government. As a

consequence, they have trouble in providing sensible guidance to

executive agency staff.


I would like to like this book more than I do. I like Burnham's

eye for detail and his relentless questions about the underside of

computer-based surveillance systems. Some new data brokering

organizations start up each year. Each year, many existing

organizations expand the scope and scale of their record keeping.

Laws and administrative practices also change slowly each year. Over

ten year periods, these gradual small scale changes accumulate.

Periodic reviews of these practices are useful. As a consequence of

continuing changes in organizational practices, legal arrangements,

and technology, studies published in the early 1970's such as Westin

and Baker's "Databanks in a Free Society" or James Rules' "Public

Surveillance and Private Lives" have become dated. Both of these

studies pre-date the use of computer matching, and several Federal

privacy initiatives.

Unfortunately, this book is weak in analysis. Even the chapter

headings don't guide the argument. The first three chapters are

labelled "surveillance," "data bases," and "power." However, themes of

power, surveillance, and data bases are strong elements in each of

them. The chapter labelled "power" primarily examines political

polling. This lax labelling of chapters signifies the way that

Burnham eschews tough analysis in favor of easy sentimentalizing.

It should be hard for Burnham, a reporter and hence a kind of

intelligence agent, to find observation, reporting, and persuasion to

be inherently sinister acts. However, Burnham colors his narrative so

that people who administer a CBIS are stigmatized in descriptions such

as "(speaking) in the quiet monotones of many long-time government

employees," or are "slightly Mephistopholean." People who sympathize

with civil libertarian values are portrayed without any frailties.

Burnham is deeply suspicious of pollsters and politicians who

manipulate the public with numbers, but he is very adept at

manipulating his audience with images. These images which equate

personal goodness with political philosophy grossly mislead.

Despite these limitations, "The Rise of the Computer State" is

particularly important because it helps articulate and illustrate

important questions about computing and social power. Unfortunately,

there is no other up-to-date inquiry into organizational surveillance

and high technology.

"The Rise of the Computer State" is an important contribution to

the tiny stream of literature which examines the political dimensions

of computer-based technologies in public life. I hope that many

people read this book despite its analytical flaws. It helps

dramatize the current problems of computer-based surveillance systems.

Burnham's graphic episodes can help give people who are not intimate

with CBIS a keen appreciation of the dilemmas which their use and

users are now creating. It can help more systematic investigators by

providing a rich set of clues from which to continue this inquiry.

These questions will not go away after 1984 has passed.


It is interesting, is it not, how so much of what shocked the public
in 1983 is today treated as ho-hum. I wonder what Mr. Burnham thinks
about computer surveillance today, a quarter-century later? And what
about Mr, Kling, our book reviewer at that time? What about you


Post Followup Article Use your browser's quoting feature to quote article into reply
Go to Next message: PRN NewsWire: "AT&T Selects Vendors for U-verse G-PON Fiber Deployment"
Go to Previous message: John Hines: "Re: 'Dr. Phil Show' Gets Ripped Off by Con Artist"
TELECOM Digest: Home Page