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Let’s protect our data. Let’s not forget how the Nazis used them | Ideas


Several people punch cards with information collected by the census with machines from Hollerith, in London, in June 1932.
Several people punch cards with information collected by the census with machines from Hollerith, in London, in June 1932.Fox Photos / Getty Images

Personal data can be given, is given and will continue to be misused. And some of the abusive uses of personal data are more deadly than asbestos.

One of the deadliest examples of data abuse was that of the Nazi regime during World War II. When the Nazis invaded a country, they quickly seized local records as a first step in controlling the population and, in particular, in locating Jews. There was a lot of variation between countries, both in terms of the type of records that each one kept and the reaction they showed to that Nazi thirst for data. The most extreme comparison is that offered by the Netherlands and France.

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Jacobus Lambertus Lentz was not a Nazi, but he did more for the German National Socialist regime than most of the more fervent anti-Semites. He was the Dutch population records inspector and his weakness was demographic statistics. His motto was “To register is to serve.” In March 1940, two months before the Nazi invasion, he proposed to the Government of his country the establishment of a personal identification system that would oblige all citizens to carry an identity card. The card used translucent inks that disappeared in the light of a quartz lamp, as well as watermarked paper, all with the purpose of making it difficult to counterfeit. The government rejected his proposal on the grounds that such a system would be contrary to Dutch democratic traditions, as it would amount to treating ordinary people as if they were criminals. Lentz was very disappointed. A few months later, he again proposed the same measure, although, this time, to the Reich’s Kriminalpolizei. The occupying forces were delighted to put it into practice.

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All adult Dutchmen were obliged to carry an identity card. On the cards the Jews carried a J: a death sentence was stamped on their pockets.

In addition to the cards, Lentz used Hollerith machines – tabulating devices sold by IBM that used punch cards to record and process data – to expand the recorded information about the population. In 1941 a decree was issued obliging all Jews to register with their local census office. For decades, the Dutch had naively collected data on the religion and other personal details of their citizens with the idea of ​​creating a system that could track each individual “from cradle to grave.” Lentz and his team of collaborators used the Hollerith machines and all the information they had to make it easier for the Nazis to track people.

In France, unlike the Netherlands, censuses did not collect information on religion for privacy reasons. The last census that had collected data of this kind dated from 1872. Henri Bunle, head of the French General Statistical Office, made it clear to the General Commission on Jewish Affairs in 1941 that France did not know how many Jews it had and, furthermore, where they lived. . In addition, France lacked the extensive punch card infrastructure available to the Netherlands, making it difficult to collect new data. If the Nazis wanted the Police to keep a record of the population, they would have to do it manually, with paper forms and cardboard cards.

Without the Hollerith tabulators there was no way to classify and compute the information that was collected about citizens. The Nazis were desperate. René Carmille, who, in addition to being auditor general of the French army, was a fan of punch cards and owned several tabulating machines (including some Hollerith), volunteered to bring order to the chaos and deliver the Jews of France to their executioners.

Carmille developed a national personal identification number that functioned as a descriptive barcode for each individual; it was the precursor to the current French social security number. Different numbers were assigned to represent personal characteristics such as profession. Carmille also prepared the 1941 census for all French citizens between the ages of 14 and 65. In question 11, Jews were asked to identify themselves through their paternal and maternal grandparents and the religion they professed.

The months passed and the lists of Jews that the Nazis expected Carmille to provide them did not arrive. The Nazis were getting impatient. They began raiding Jews in Paris, but, without Carmille’s tabulations, they depended on Jews turning themselves in or betrayed by neighbors. More months passed and the lists still did not arrive.

The Nazis did not know it, but René Carmille had never had any intention of betraying his fellow citizens. He was one of the highest positions in the French Resistance. His operation generated some 20,000 false identities, he used his tabulators to identify people who were willing to fight against the Nazis. The responses to question 11 about whether the respondents were Jewish were never tabulated. The corresponding holes were never drilled and that data was lost forever. To date, more than 100,000 of those doctored punch cards have been discovered; cards that were never delivered to the Nazis. Hundreds of thousands of people were saved by a single person who decided not to collect their data, their toxic data.

It seems reasonable to assume that Carmille knew that they would eventually discover him if he did not hand over the details he had promised. The SS arrested him in 1944. They tortured him for two days and then sent him to Dachau, where he died of exhaustion in 1945.

Data collection can kill. The Dutch suffered the highest death rate for Jewish inhabitants in occupied Europe: 73%. Out of an estimated population of 140,000 Dutch Jews, more than 107,000 were deported, and 102,000 of them were murdered. The death rate for Jews in France was 25%. Out of an estimated population of between 300,000 and 350,000, 85,000 were deported and 82,000 of these were killed. (…)

The best indicator that something will happen in the future is that it happened in the past. These stories are not from a distant galaxy in a fictional universe. They are real stories from which we must learn so as not to repeat the deadly mistakes of the past.

Imagine a contemporary authoritarian regime appropriating all your personal data. The despots of the past had scraps of information compared to the thousands of pieces of data that can be accessed today about anyone in the world with just a few clicks. An authoritarian government could know all our weaknesses without having to put too much effort into it. If it could predict our every move, it could be the beginning of an invincible regime. To give you an idea of ​​how dangerous personal data is, imagine a regime like the Nazi, but today, with access to real-time data on your location, your facial profile, your way of walking, your heart rate. , your political ideas, your religious affiliation and much more.

Carissa Véliz (Mexico, 1988) is a philosopher and member of the Hertford College of the University of Oxford. This excerpt is a preview of his book ‘Privacy is Power. Data, surveillance and freedom in the digital age ‘, by the editorial Debate. It is published this September 16.

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