The End of Privacy Began in the 1960s

 
A view of the F.B.I. National Crime Information Center in Washington in 1967. In the 1960s, lawmakers began to question the government's gathering of Americans' data. Photo: Bettmann, via Getty Images

A view of the F.B.I. National Crime Information Center in Washington in 1967. In the 1960s, lawmakers began to question the government's gathering of Americans' data. Photo: Bettmann, via Getty Images

 
 
The computer never forgets.
 

The New York Times, Dec. 5, 2018
Opinion by Margaret O’Mara
Dr. O’Mara, a professor of history, is the author of a forthcoming book about the history of Silicon Valley.

In the fall of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration announced a plan to consolidate hundreds of federal databases into one centralized National Data Bank. It was meant as an efficiency move to make the Great Society even greater.

But there were many Americans who were worried about privacy — from civil rights leaders and student activists under surveillance by the F.B.I. to lawmakers who had begun to question J. Edgar Hoover’s use of his electronic arsenal — and the National Data Bank confirmed their darkest fears. In the years that followed, Congress convened headline-making hearings, slamming the databank idea and warning of government information-gathering run amok.

The privacy warriors of the 1960s would have been astounded by what the tech industry has become. They would be more amazed to realize that the policy choices they made back then — to demand data transparency rather than limit data collection, and to legislate the behavior of government but not private industry — enabled today’s tech giants to become as large and powerful as they are.

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to question Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google, over allegations of bias in its algorithms, and energized Democrats are vowing to turn up the heat on tech companies over antitrust and privacy when they take over House leadership in January. There is a growing recognition in Silicon Valley and Washington that current data privacy regulations need to be changed. Understanding how American lawmakers approached these issues in the past is essential to getting it right this time.

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