With so much terrible news abounding about how irresponsible and downright predatory tech companies have been with our data, it’s hard to not feel anger bubbling up inside me at the entire tech industry — especially now that I know that a scrappy group of computer professionals tried to save us from all this half a century ago. That group was Computer People for Peace. Though they are largely forgotten today and difficult to track down online, CPP’s valiant goals show us how everything could have been different.
According to Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945-1975 by Kelly Moore, CPP was started in 1969 in New York City as a national network of anti-war activists who worked in the computer industry.
This! In 1971. pic.twitter.com/hTbFq1gZff— Simon Lindgren (@simonlindgren) January 10, 2018
The book Ivory Bridges: Connecting Science and Society by Gerhard Sonnert and Gerald Holton puts their founding date at 1968, but adds that the group included about 200 members. Both books mention CPP’s newsletter Interrupt, in which the group published some of its most radical demands and visions for the future.
A 1971 issue of the radical feminist journal off our backs includes an announcement for a May meeting in Atlantic City “against the misuse of technology.” An announcement for that meeting also appears in a 1971 issue of alternative publication The Realist. There, CPP placed a call for activists to appear at that year’s Spring Joint Computer Conference, an event that the ad points out is “overwhelmingly dominated by white males,” so as to call attention to issues that are critical today — namely, “the use of computer information systems as a means of social control,” “corporate racism,” and “the role of automation on rising unemployment.”
In 1972, CPP addressed Congress about the need to protect citizens against the potential misuse of computer technology by those working in the industry. “In no way could we abdicate our responsibility to the public by making them believe that we could technically design data bank systems which could offer them the protections they so desperately need,” they told our nation’s keepers long before the ubiquity of the personal computer.
They also included a rundown of how the right to privacy should work in the computer age: “There should be no transfer of data from one agency to another and no sale of information under any circumstance … Individuals should be informed by periodic audit notices of all information about them held on any data bank and should have the power to have any such data altered or destroyed.” Imagine that!
Aside from trying to enact regulations to protect Americans from tech world fuckery, the organization also stuck its neck out for important social justice cases. CPP gets a mention in Assata Shakur’s 1987 book Assata: An Autobiography, when she recalls how it raised money for the bail of Sundiata Acoli — aka Clark Squire, a member of the Black Panther 21 — but those efforts were eventually foiled: “The computer people said they would do everything they could to raise money for Sundiata’s bail, and that’s what they did. The only thing was that, once the $100,000 cash bail was raised, pig judge Murtagh refused to release him or any of the others.” Additionally, CPP was one of several groups involved in a 1971 lawsuit against the NYPD, attempting to stop its intense efforts to surveil private citizens.
By 1974, CPP had disbanded. In its wake, other computer industry social justice efforts and professional organizations like Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility popped up and today, the Electronic Frontier Foundation continues the work of these early tech activists. But CPP’s dream of a secure, responsible computer industry was never fully realized. One need only look at the group’s Electronic Bill of Rights to see just how easily we could have predicted current misuse of private citizens’ data. While the blame is rightly placed on companies like Facebook who play fast and loose with private information, let’s not forget to reserve a good portion of blame for our good old US government. The good nerds tried to warn you in the ’70s, but you didn’t listen, and now the bad nerds are having a field day with my social security number.