IBM Turns 100

IBM is officially 100 years old now and to celebrate they’ve created a list of 100 innovations created by the company. Not surprisingly they forgot to mention their punch card system when used in relation to assiting in the Holocaust. Then again if I were IBM I’d try to cover that up as well.

No I’m not going to spend this entire post ragging on IBM for something they did long ago. What I will do though is use this situation to explain the dangers of census information. IBM didn’t help Nazi Germany with the Holocaust by supplying equipment to kill targeted individuals, they did it by supplying Germany with machines that more easily allowed for tabulating information such as ethnicity about the country’s population:

On April 12, 1933, the German government announced the plans to immediately conduct a long-delayed national census. The project was particularly important to the Nazis as a mechanism for the identification of Jews, Gypsies, and other ethnic groups deemed undesirable by the regime. Dehomag offered to actively assist the German government in its task of ethnic identification, concentrating first upon the 41 million residents of Prussia.

On top of that the same type of system was used by the United States for their concentration camps:

His grand design for 1943 was a locator file in which would appear a Hollerith alphabetic punch card for each evacuee. These cards were to include standard demographic information about age, gender, education, occupation, family size, medical history, criminal record, and RC location. However, additional data categories about links to Japan were also maintained, such as years of residence in Japan and the extent of education received there… The punch card project was so extensive and immediate that the WRA [War Relocation Authority] subcontracted the function to IBM.

IBM’s punch card systems allowed for the recording and easier sorting of additional information related to individuals. This information was then used to better target certain groups. When the 2010 United States census forms went around people noticed that the government was doing a Hell of a lot more than simply counting the population (the only thing they’re legally allowed to do according to the Constitution). The census form seemed to have a strong interest in Hispanic populations.

Data related to peoples’ race, religion, gender, native country, etc. have been collected by governments and used improperly for ages. The Holocaust was a prime example of how dangerous it is to let governments hold onto such information. Like all technological advancements punch card systems can be used for both good and evil and have been used for both. I’m not attempting to blame IBM or technological progress for anything, but I think it’s important to note the dangers of allowing governments to gather information on demographics. Once that information is obtained it will never be destroyed and thus can be used decades down the road by some crazy ass dictator who decides he doesn’t like one group or another.

As IBM celebrates their 100 years of being in business let us also take a moment to remember the dangers of demographic information in the hands of governments. IBM created a marvelous system that was put to terrible use and it’s important to learn from that lesson.