This 1966 Article About 'Computer Danger' Predicted a Bleak Future of Bank Crimes and Info Leaks

IBM computers in 1962
IBM computers in 1962
Photo: Novak Archive

When it comes to high-tech surveillance, identity theft, and financial crimes, humanity lives in a hell of its own making. Technology here in the second decade of the 21st century has created a world where our personal information is constantly getting exposed. And for what benefit? The “convenience” of being able to pay our bills online. But we can’t say we weren’t warned. People in 1966 saw where all of this automation was heading.

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A short editorial in the September 19, 1966 issue of the Sandusky Register newspaper in Sandusky, Ohio predicted that life was about to get worse as information, especially financial information, became more centralized.

The editorial noted that although the “com­puter age” was “in its infancy,” the computerization of financial information would lead to more robbery, more embezzlement, and a complete “assault on personal privacy.” And we can’t say they were wrong.

From the September 19, 1966 issue of the Sandusky Register in Ohio:

It had to happen sooner or later in this age of industrial espionage, but it is still disquieting to learn that spies already are at work pick­ing the brains of electronic compu­ters.

This revelation came from a meeting on computer privacy spon­sored by the Federal Bar Associa­tion in Washington. One instance cited was a computer expert who programmed his firm’s computer to provide himself with thousands of dollars in free communications services. His embezzlement by computer was not discovered until a friend tipped the firm.

Sufficient numbers of other cases have been uncovered to cause concern that the revolution in infor­mation storage has opened new vis­tas for the unscrupulous. The com­puter age is in its infancy. By the time it is in full bloom a few years from now, most written records will have been replaced by central banks which can divulge the inner­most secrets of an individual or a firm literally at the push of a but­ton.

Banks have never been able to completely safeguard against rob­bery or embezzlement, but they protect their customers with insur­ance. What insurance can compen­sate a person whose life’s secrets have been spilled to a blackmailer, or a firm whose secret processes or customer list have been sold to a competitor?

Many persons are concerned by the assault on personal privacy by electronic listening devices. These instruments are child’s play com­pared to the possibilities in compu­ter espionage.

The Internal Revenue Service, which has a questionable history of divulging its records to many feder­al and state agencies anyway, now has 68 million tax returns stored in one computer operated by a 30-man team. The IRS has found certain of its confidential tax information being passed to private investiga­tors.

Every man, it is said, has his price. That goes double for compu­ters controlled by men.

Yes, it sounds a little dated. But this was 1966, three full years before the first host-to-host connection of the ARPANET between UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute. And the issues being raised are some of the exact issues that we’re living through today. We were warned in 1966, and 1971, and 1975. Humanity was repeatedly warned and we didn’t take note.

Electronic surveillance through “listening devices”? Check. Financial institutions having too much control of your private data? Check. The IRS leaking confidential tax information? Well, that one wouldn’t be so bad if it allowed the American people to learn about President Trump’s tax returns and his many conflicts of interest around the globe. But we’re not that lucky.

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It turns out we got all of the worst parts of their prediction except for the one that might help Americans the most. It seems like something to keep in mind the next time someone predicts that technology will only help humanity as we crawl our way to the 2020s.

Matt Novak is a senior writer at Gizmodo and founder of Paleofuture.com. He's writing a book about the movies U.S. presidents watched at the White House, Camp David, and on Air Force One.

DISCUSSION

sing-electric
sing.electric

And for what benefit? The “convenience” of being able to pay our bills online. 

That’s a really cynical way of putting it. Electronic banking happened in two waves - the first at the bank level, starting in the 60s, and the second at the personal level, really starting in the 90s.

Before that, the only way to know how much money you had in your bank account was to literally go in to your branch and ask, or wait for your monthly statement. In between, you’d have to spend a copious amount of time balancing your checkbook. If I wrote a check to you, you would endorse it, go to your bank to deposit it, who would then mail the check to my bank and only then would the money come out of your account. It could take 2+ weeks depending on various factors.

Because there wasn’t an easy way to get financial information about someone, applying for loans/credit was a much more arduous process, and frequently you had to have an existing relationship with an institution to get a loan. This meant interest rates were less competitive, fewer people had access to credit (particularly immigrants and minorities who were less likely to have existing relationships with banks), and so the credit multiplier effect was way lower, which impacted economic growth.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be doing a better job with security - we clearly should - or that we shouldn’t have higher standards of consumer protection (Europe’s GDPR, mandating breaches get disclosed within 72 hours, is a good start), but it’s really important to recognize all of the benefits that electronic banking has got us.