Tag Archives: surveillance

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.

Teaching Communications Security and Social Movements

My reaction to the Snowden disclosures was a mix of “I’m not surprised” with “this is a lot worse than I imagined”.  Not long after, I went to a small workshop and during breaks tried to engage colleagues in discussing the implications of the capabilities of the surveillance state of which we were now at least partially aware.  Responses were at best disappointing.  The near-universal apathy was disturbing.  Most of the people I spoke with teach undergraduate computer science.  If they don’t care about the ethics of a surveillance system whose maintenance and expansion depend on our graduates, what hope would there be for change?

In thinking, “what more can I do from my highly privileged position?”, my partner and I have been teaching activists in social movements to use end-to-end encryption and other online self-defense techniques.  We’ve also designed a freshman course to teach online self-defense.  Since we are in particular concerned with the impact of state surveillance machinery on social movements, the course is offered through the Difference, Power and Discrimination (DPD) program at OSU and so addresses institutionalized systems of power, privilege, and inequity in the United States.  We will be teaching the technical concepts for understanding online surveillance and the encryption tools that can mitigate it alongside the historical and contemporary impacts that state surveillance has had on social movements.  The course will be offered for the first time this coming Spring — CS175: Communications Security and Social Movements.

From the reading that accompanied the development of this course and our trainings, it became clear that teaching CS175 through the DPD lens was a good move. Muslim populations in the US are subject to heightened surveillance, scrutiny, infiltration, provocation and entrapment.  The Department of Homeland Security monitors those involved with #BlackLivesMatter.  Historically, we know that surveillance is key to suppressing groups that challenge the state (for example, the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement) and the mass collection of data on targeted populations has facilitated genocide.  Mass surveillance doesn’t affect us all equally — mass surveillance is disproportionately directed at marginalized groups such as people of color.

To hear about this in our College’s new podcast, start listening here at 15:10.