2015 marked 50 years since the 1965 publication of the ground-breaking National Data Center Proposal in the United States. Now that this landmark has passed we can look back on what has changed since the initial proposal, and, in light of this, forward to what we can anticipate will happen over the next 50 years.
The National Data Center Proposal outlined an ambitious plan in which the US Government would create and store detailed files on its citizens – recording everything from their fingerprints and tax records to their education history and criminal records – in a single Federal data centre. Importantly, the proposal suggested that these records be stored on magnetic computer tape, so they could be retrieved easily for viewing and ‘research’ by authorities. This was a breathtakingly ambitious vision to create what we would now recognise as an electronic database.
Looking back on it today, there is much in this narrative that is instantly familiar – even if the underlying technologies have since changed beyond recognition. The basic premise of electronic storage is the same but the advent of digital technologies such as flash means that governments and businesses alike can now store far more data, and much less expensively, than was the case in 1965. Today, more data than ever is being captured and analysed – via big data analytics – often delivering real-time insights that have the power to benefit the world around us.
What is interesting to note, however, is how the ethics of data capture have shifted over the last half-century. The National Data Center Proposal was ultimately dropped in 1968 due to concerns over privacy: it was deemed intrusive at the time for the US government to hold that much personal data on its citizenry.