#028 A Never-Ending Census


Steph: This is an excerpt from Permanent Record by Edward Snowden, beginning on page 182.

“I think often of what’s called the “atomic moment”–a phrase that in physics describes the moment when a nucleus coheres, the protons and neutrons spinning around it into an atom, but that’s popularly understood to mean the advent of the nuclear age, whose isotopes enabled advances in energy production, agriculture, water potability, and the diagnosis and treatment of deadly disease. It also created the atomic bomb.

“Technology doesn’t have a Hippocratic oath. So many decisions that have been made by technologists in academia, industry, the military, and government since at least the Industrial Revolution have been made on the basis of “can we,” not “should we.” And the intention driving a technology’s invention rarely, if ever, limits its application and use.

“I do not mean of course to compare nuclear weapons with cyber surveillance in terms of human cost. But there is a commonality when it comes to the concepts of proliferation and disarmament.

“The only two countries I knew of that had previously practiced mass surveillance were those two other major combatants of World War II–one America’s enemy, the other America’s ally. In both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, the earliest public indications of that surveillance took the superficially innocuous form of a census, the official enumeration and statistical recording of a population. The first All Union Census of the Soviet Union in 1926 had a secondary agenda beyond a simple count: it overtly queried Soviet citizens about their nationality. Its findings convinced the ethnic Russians who comprised the Soviet elite that they were in the minority when compared to the aggregated masses of citizens who claimed a Central Asian heritage such as Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Turkmen, Georgians, and Armenians. These findings significantly strengthened Stalin’s resolve to eradicate these cultures, by “re-educating” their populations in the deracinating ideology of Marxism-Leninism.

“The Nazi German census of 1933 took on a similar statistical project, but with the assistance of computer technology. It set out to count the Reich’s population in order to control it and to purge it–mainly of Jews and Roma–before exerting its murderous efforts on populations beyond its borders. To effect this, the Reich partnered with Dehomag, a German subsidiary of the American IBM, which owned the patent to a punch card tabulator, a sort of analog computer that counted holes punched into cards. Each citizen was represented by a card, and certain holes on the cards represented certain markers of identity. Column 22 addressed the religion rubric: hole one was Protestant, hole two Catholic and hole three Jewish. In 1933, the Nazis still officially regarded Jews not as a race, but as a religion. That view was dropped a few years later, by which time this census information was being used to identify and deport Europe’s Jewish population to the death camps.

“A single current-model smartphone commands more computing power than all of the wartime machinery of the Reich and the Soviet Union combined. Recalling this is the surest way to contextualize not just the modern American IC’s technological dominance, but also the threat it poses to democratic governance. In the century or so since those census efforts, technology has made astounding progress, but the same could not be said for the law or human scruples that could restrain it.

“The United States has a census, too, of course. The Constitution established the American census and enshrined it as the official federal count of each state’s population in order to determine its proportional delegation to the House of Representatives. That was something of a revisionist principle, in that authoritarian governments, including the British Monarchy that ruled the colonies, had traditionally used the census as a method of assessing taxes and ascertaining the number of young men eligible for military conscription.

“It was the Constitution’s genius to repurpose what had been a mechanism of oppression into one of democracy. The census, which is officially under the jurisdiction of the Senate, was ordered to be performed every ten years, which was roughly the amount of time it took to process the data of most American censuses following the first census of 1790. This decade-long lag was shortened by the census of 1890, which was the world’s first census to make use of computers (the prototypes of the models that IBM later sold to Nazi Germany). With computing technology, the processing time was cut in half.

“Digital technology didn’t just further streamline such accounting–it is rendering it obsolete. Mass surveillance is now a never-ending census, substantially more dangerous than any questionnaire sent through the mail. All our devices, from our phones to our computers, are basically miniature census-takers we carry in our backpacks and in our pockets–census takers that remember everything and forgive nothing.”

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Published by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company New York (2019)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.