Automating Inequality

Automating Inequality

How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor

Virginia Eubanks

It would stand us all in good stead to remember that infatuation with high-tech social sorting emerges most aggressively in countries riven by severe inequality and governed by totalitarians. As Edwin Black reports in IBM and the Holocaust, thousands of Hollerith punch card systems—an early version of computer software—allowed the Nazi regime to more efficiently identify, track, and exploit Jews and other targeted populations. The appalling reality is that the serial numbers tattooed onto the forearms of inmates at Auschwitz began as punch card identification numbers. The passbook system that controlled the movements, work opportunities, health care, and housing of 25 million Black South Africans was made possible by data mining the country’s 1951 census to create a centralized population register assigning every person to one of four racial categories. In an amicus brief filed in 2015 on behalf of Black South Africans attempting to sue IBM for aiding and abetting apartheid, Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote, “The technological backbone for the South African national identification system … enabled the apartheid regime to efficiently implement ‘denationalization’ of the country’s black population: the identification, forced segregation, and ultimate oppression of South African blacks by the white-run government.”

Link · 3063