Tag Archives: ethics

IBM and the Holocaust — why wasn’t this on my radar?

I have spent the last couple of years teaching folks about surveillance and what they can do about it, primarily in partnership with the Civil Liberties Defense Center and through a interdisciplinary course on surveillance and social movements.  In reading about surveillance, I had come across, in multiple places, a statement along the lines of “IBM provided the punch-card technology that allowed the Third Reich to perform the census operations that were necessary to identify Jews,” with a citation to the book IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black.  I didn’t think too much about it.  After all, all modern surveillance is supported by technology, and I don’t necessarily place the blame on, for example, Intel for manufacturing chips that Hacking Group ultimately buys.  At worst, it seemed (from a single sentence) that IBM would be guilty of the kind of profiteering that many corporations operating in our capitalist world engage in.

Until I sat down to actually read IBM and the Holocaust; now I understand the significance of IBM’s involvement in WWII, and it can’t be summarized in a single sentence.  I will do my best to summarize in a few paragraphs (hopefully a little more succinctly than the book’s Wikipedia article).

Summary of IBM and the Holocaust

First, it is important to understand what punch card technology was like during the early 20th century.  The punch card tabulating machines performed basic statistical, sorting and selecting operations.  They were programmable only by experts and the machines themselves were not bought but leased from IBM (or other companies, although IBM had an effective monopoly on the technology).  In addition, the punch cards themselves were manufactured and supplied only by IBM for IBM machines, and they were manufactured for specific uses.  For example, punch cards would be printed to support the scheduling tasks of a specific railway system or the census of a particular region. The design of the punch card for a specific task was done by IBM employees in cooperation with the leasing group.  IBM directly trained the users of the punch cards and tabulating machines.  That is, IBM had intimate knowledge of the specific uses of their technology in the field.

Second, we need to understand who at IBM would know what their technology was used for.  Most of the tabulating machines used by Nazi Germany were leased by the IBM subsidiary in Germany, called Dehomag, which was 90% owned by IBM. Until Dehomag built its own factory in Germany (after Hitler came to power, and after census operations that would identify Jews were announced), the machines were imported from the US.  Likewise, due to supply shortages in Germany, punch cards were printed outside of Nazi-controlled areas well into WWII. The main reason, in my opinion, for the length of Black’s book is to provide sufficient evidence that Dehomag wasn’t a rogue subsidiary, but instead was heavily micromanaged by Watson (the CEO of IBM at the time).  Black makes it clear that Watson and many other executives at all levels of operations would have known specific uses of their machines.  Watson and other IBM executives made frequent trips to Germany until 1941.  Watson met with Hitler in 1937 and received a medal of honor from the Third Reich.  That is, IBM executives at all levels and internationally would be privy to the specific uses of their technology by the Third Reich.

Third, we need to understand what exactly IBM technology was being used for.  This is possibly the most disturbing part, especially in understanding how much IBM as a whole would have known about their uses.

I already indicated that punch cards and tabulating machines were used in census operations.  This is why IBM and the Holocaust comes up in surveillance literature — census is considered the most basic form of mass surveillance.  Census operations were called by the Third Reich in every territory it invaded.  Nazis were obsessed with identifying all Jews, including “racial Jews”, so they included not only religion on the census forms, but also the religion of ones parents and grandparents.  They would cross-check this with marriage forms and baptismal data held at churches.  Tabulating machines were used to understand how many “full”, “half” and “quarter” Jews lived in any district.  They also helped the Third Reich understand that as they imposed harsh regulations on Jews (e.g. Nuremburg Laws), many Jews would leave to neighboring regions, where the Third Reich would have to confront them again as they conquered neighboring territories, leading to the Nazi’s “Final Solution”: extermination.

Tabulating machines were housed in railway stations to help in the scheduling of trains and keeping track of the location of train cars.  Trains were used to transport Jews and other “undesirables” to and between concentration camps.  The sheer numbers of people being transported (in addition to war supplies) at the time required would not be supported by the 2 week delay in locating train cars that was typical in non-punch-card scheduling systems used at the time.

Finally, tabulating machines were housed at the concentration camps.  Each prisoner had a card that detailed their health, skills and location as prisoners of good health were transported according to labor needs.  Finally, the card also indicated the way the prisoner died: by natural causes (which would include being worked or tortured to death), execution, suicide, and special treatment (including gas chamber).

That is, IBM technology was used to support all aspects of the Holocaust, from identifying and transporting Jews, to managing their populations at concentration camps and recording their executions. Recall how much of this, by design of the punch cards and tabulating machines, IBM would know.

I want to include one story from IBM and the Holocaust which I think is important.  In all the Nazi-conquered territories, census operations made the rounding up and extermination of Jews possible.  However, they weren’t as successful in France, where an estimated 25% of Jews died.  For comparison, an estimated 75% of Jews in Holland died.  In France, the census operations were eventually completed by René Carmille.  However, Carmille sabotaged the operation, preventing any information about religion from being punched into cards.  He also used the census information to mobilize the French Resistance.  He was eventually captured and taken to Dachau where he died of exhaustion.

Why wasn’t this on my radar until now?

IBM and the Holocaust came out in 2001.  I started my graduate education in computer science in 2002.  It took me until possibly last year to even hear a hint of it.  I think this is an utter failure, utter lack of ethics education.  I was never formally taught any ethics.  I have to say that I was barely ever informally taught any ethics either.  Any ethical considerations I picked up during graduate school, looking back now, were not necessarily sound.  I know that I was just one student, but never have I even heard a colleague make mention of IBM and the Holocaust.  We should be talking about cases like IBM and the Holocaust with our students and with ourselves.  A majority of our students will go on to work for companies just like IBM.  And if they aren’t taught that tragedies like the Holocaust happen because everyone was just doing their job, we are liable for the continued abuse of computer science.

The law does not and should not define our morals

I attended the Advanced in Security Education workshop earlier this week where I gave a lightning talk about our Communications Security and Social Movements class.  The last lightning talk (which, unlike all the others, was allowed to go far longer than the 5 allotted minutes), by Anthony Serapiglia of Saint Vincent College, was about his class on forensic training where, as part of the class activities, students retrieve data from old cell phones (mostly flip phones) that are in a variety of states (e.g. seemingly broken, infected with ransom-ware).

Cellphones available from Goodwill for $6.

Serapiglia described how easy and cheaply one can get these cell phones from Goodwill’s online store (“by the pound”).  That’s right, he is using real people’s old phones that were discarded (in many cases it seems that they were discarded because people thought they were unusable), lost or stolen and ended up at Goodwill.  He has students retrieve personally identifiable information from the phones, phones that he himself has not looked at the data on.  He illustrates the retrieved data in a series of increasingly sensationalized photos: a family picnic; a child playing; a full frontal nude selfie; and 4 photos from the same phone of a man and his girlfriend, a hand holding presumably illicit drugs, a bookie sheet, and a man lying unconscious beat up (which Serapiglia describes as the owner of the phone having not paid his gambling debts).

I was feeling increasingly sick as I listened to his talk until he brought up a slide that had some mention of ethics on it, at which point I felt even worse.  His take on the ethical considerations were that of protecting his students from the pictures and other data they would uncover from the phones.  On the one hand, his mention of a media spot that he claimed to have done before the course started describing how easy it is to get data off old phones seemed to be his personal stand-in for informed consent. On the other hand, his saying several times that his university’s legal counsel gave the green light for the use of people’s presumed discarded data in his class, indicated that he was using the law as his moral and ethical guide.  He ended the talk asking us if we would use such real data in our classrooms, and, given the outline of his talk, the only consideration seemed to be out of concern for what the students would be exposed to.

I was relieved that my hand wasn’t the only hand to snap up after the talk.  The first questioner pointed out that such data use would not be legal in Europe and (paraphrasing) that European law, in this case, more closely aligns with morality.  I pointed out that if one uses the law to define ones ethics that you will far short every time and that the law in the US drags behind commonly held societal beliefs.  Another questioner suggested Serapiglia try an experiment to see if his presumed implicit consent closely matches what he would get from explicit consent: put out a call for volunteer cell phones to be used in the same manner; if he doesn’t get any donations, then perhaps he shouldn’t used “discarded” phones either.  Except for one audience member who thought it would be okay to use such an exercise in a graduate, but not an undergraduate, class, everyone admonished the use of people’s old cell phones without their explicit permission.

We have seen more than once, the treatment of electronic data as divorced from the people who created it, claiming at least implicitly that it does not warrant the same level of human-subjects-research protections that we afford people in person.  And while IRBs don’t evaluate non-research use of human data, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t apply the same principles to our classroom activities.  Perhaps even more importantly we should be aware of the ethics we are implicitly teaching through our classroom activities, as they shape our students.

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

When I was a grad student, I was in a professor’s office when an undergrad stopped by to give the professor an art card as a thank you for writing a recommendation letter.  The professor kindly turned down the gesture.  At the time, I thought that, as the offering was little more than a greeting card, such a denial was not worth the effort.  The professor pointed out that a line has to be drawn somewhere.

I agree.  But I’m unsure of two things: where to draw the line and how to explain the line to students, particularly when cultural differences may play a role.  I’ll describe a few situations that have come up.

I am on the graduate committee for a Ph.D. student along with 3 other faculty.  This involves sitting in on qualifiers and exams and helping to make decisions on their course of study and progress.  Immediately after a qualifier exam some time ago, the student came to my office with a puzzle – having seen that I have a small collection of puzzles on my bookshelf – and offered it to me with a thanks for the exam.  I turned down the gift, explaining that it is not appropriate for me to accept such gestures when I am in a position of authority.  This week, I came back from a week’s vacation to see a gift bag hanging from my office door.  The gift bag contained a card from the same student and alluded to the fact that the bag must have recently contained (a thief in our midst!) the same puzzle.  The student thought it would be ok for me to now accept the present.  I have emailed the student and explained again that I should not receive gifts.  Unfortunately, this time, there is no gift to return!

The Ph.D. qualifier exams here are 2 hour oral exams.  Not the most exciting thing.  It seems to become tradition that the student bring food for the examining committee.  This seems to vary from a few cartons of cookies to full-on home-cooked meals with catered coffee from our building’s coffee shop.  Some may argue that bringing your committee a few doughnuts and coffee may be a nice gesture, and this, apparently, is how this tradition started.  However, it seems to have gone much too far.  Of course, I don’t feel that the committee’s decision would be swayed by the quality of the food provided – if anything, better food may draw a failure from the committee so we might enjoy such a spread once more.  A line should be drawn, but how?  I would argue that nothing should be brought.  As faculty, sitting on such committees is part of our job.  We know that the meeting will be 2 hours and are perfectly capable of bringing our own sustenance.    Any line above zero is particularly strange.  ‘A student may provide no more than $10 worth of sustenance purchased at the building’s coffee shop.’  So is a student expected to spend $10?  Now a student has to bring coffee for the lofty professors?  Any line above zero should be funded by the department, not the student.  That would be great, but I don’t see it in the budget.

Finally, my own Ph.D. student and I have an interesting relationship.  We are very close in age, live around the corner from each other and have a fair amount in common.  We also both enjoy baking, although I don’t find I get to as often as I once did.  We’ve exchanged various food items in small quantities, usually eaten during meetings – neither of us can go more than an hour without eating like constantly foraging squirrels.  On the recent occasion of my entering old age, she brought me a small batch of (delicious, creamy, homemade, peppermint, white-chocolate) fudge.  Perhaps I should have declined the gift, which I felt a little over that ill-defined line, but I didn’t.  I have to say – it made great fuel for a recent bike trip.

What do you do in such situations?  Am I too strict, not strict enough for your taste?