The Rise of
the Digital Dossier
We currently live in a world where extensive dossiers exist about each one of us. These dossiers are in digital format, stored in massive computer databases by a host of government agencies and private-sector companies. The problems caused by these developments are profound. But to understand the problems, we must first understand how they arose.
Although personal records have been kept for centuries,1 only in contemporary times has the practice become a serious concern. Prior to the nineteenth century, few public records were collected, and most of them were kept at a very local level, often by institutions associated with churches.2 The federal government's early endeavors at collecting data consisted mainly in conducting the census. The first census in 1790 asked only four questions.3 With each proceeding census, the government gathered more personal information. By i860,142 questions were asked.4 When the 1890 census included questions about diseases, disabilities, and finances, it sparked a public outcry, ultimately leading to the passage in the early twentieth century of stricter laws protecting the confidentiality of census data.5