SUBJECT: Computer Science, Sociology, Technology SERIES: Nova
PRODUCTION COMPANY: WGBH
PRODUCTION DATE: 1981
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: United States of America
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE: English
Commentary: James Whitmore
Direction: Linda Harrar
Direction: Theodore Bogosian
Production: Donna Rice
Production: John Mansfield
Script: Linda Harrar
Script: Theodore Bogosian
SUMMARY: This film examines the effects that widespread computer use is having on the most fundamental of all civil rights, privacy. The issue is becoming more crucial as computers go into mass distribution, as they have in France. There, terminals in every household and the use of a "smart" card, with which people do banking, shopping etc. and which contains private and health information, will revolutionize our way of life. But as soon as such information is handed over, it can be abused. Many credit bureaus have incorrect information which may adversely affect many lives.
In 1974, the United States passed the Privacy Act, which allowed citizens the right to search all their records and change incorrect information. Nevertheless, some people were refused access to their records. FBI investigations which included bugging, wiretapping, and threats have come to light. With the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the activities of the National Security Agency, any communications can be surveyed, and diplomatic codes broken. Since computer information goes out over telephone lines, it can easily be tapped as well.
The sale of mailing lists has become a large industry. Magazines and other organizations sell their mailing lists, much to the benefit of political organizations. Without the use of mailing lists and computer direct mail systems, the New Right in the United States would never have achieved the clout it did, according to one of its spokesmen. Similar to this are telephone broadcasting systems either selling products or collecting payments. These have a psychological power over a client, as she or he is committed to tape. Terrorist groups such as France's Direct Action fear this tendency and aim to destroy computers altogether.
With large datacentres, such as those used in banks, security becomes a major problem. Information can be tapped at many sources, particularly by people inside the organization. Citibank uses a system of codes and double-checking, but Amerifirst is the only American bank to use an encryption system, which scrambles transmissions. These are encrypted and decrypted using DES mathematical algorithms and two keys.
College systems are prone to computer vandalism as well. A young student explains to officials at a university how he deduced their access code, obtained their assembly programs, and had the capability to bring their system down altogether.
The single-key encryption system and the more manageable two-key system which has cyphers and supercyphers are explained. An official of the NSA explains that the agency is trying to limit cryptographic studies which might improve computer security and privacy as they threatened national security. The film concludes that the protection of privacy is extremely important in the computer age.