A Darn Good Read – Paul Schwartz on Data Processing

Almost twenty-five years ago, Paul Schwartz wrote Data Processing and Government Administration: The Failure of the American Legal Response to the Computer, 43 HASTINGS L.J. 1321 (1991) (pdf), and I must say it is worth a read today. Paul identified the problems with government’s and especially the administrative state’s use of computation to do their duties. As he opened:

Computers are now an integral part of government administration. They put a tremendous amount of personal data in the hands of government officials, who base a wide range of decisions on this information. Yet the attention paid to the government’s use of data processing has not been equal to the potential dangers that this application presents. Personal information, when disclosed to family and friends, helps form the basis of trust; in the hands of strangers, this information can have a corrosive effect on individual autonomy. The human race’s rapid development of computer technology has not been matched by a requisite growth in the ability to control these new machines.

That passage may seem familiar, but recall when it was written and note the next point Paul made:

This Article’s goal is to formulate a constructive response to computer processing of personal data. The destruction of computers is no more an answer to informatization than the destruction of earlier machines would have been an answer to industrialization. Accordingly, this Article seeks to understand the results of the government’s processing of
personal data and to develop appropriate legal principles to guide this application of computer technology.

That goal seems to be missing in some discussions, but I think it is a good one. To be clear, I don’t necessarily agree with some of Paul’s prescriptions. But the point of this post is not about that. I recommend the paper despite disagreeing with some of the ideas. I do so because it helped me with the history of the topic, explained issues, presented a structure and jurisprudence to drill into the topic, offered ways to address them, and pushed me to think more on my views. It is a well-written, worthwhile read both for substance and style.

In short, thank you Professor Schwartz.

You may also like...