Race and Technology

A blog about the intersection of race and technology.

High Tech and High Holy Days

Yom Kippur is upon us, ending the "High Holy Days," of Judaism. A shofar, or ram's horn, is blown at Rosh Hashana, beginning a time of personal reflection. Yom Kippur ends these days with a period of atonement and repentance. Recently, news reports emerged of a shofar blown in Auschwitz during World War II, at great personal risk. During these high holy days, I have found myself reflecting on the role high-tech played in the horrors of Holocaust.

While trying to understand why Thomas J. Watson Sr., the founder of IBM, would offer my father a job in 1946, as the first black software engineer in America, I came face-to-face with IBM's role in eugenics, the Holocaust, apartheid and racial profiling.

Eugenics is a pseudo-science which seeks to breed a mythically pure "Nordic stock" of human beings, and to cull from humanity's ranks all those who do not fit this ideal—African Americans, homosexuals, and Jews among them—through measures ranging from forced sterilization to death.

In 1928, the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Springs Harbor, New York, led by Charles Davenport, received funding for a study to identify mixed-race individuals on the island of Jamaica for forced sterilization or other forms of population control. But the study required the collection and analysis of massive amounts of information.

Thomas Watson's young company, IBM, had precisely what Davenport required. IBM engineers worked with the ERO to design a punch card format for collecting and analyzing information on racial characteristics. They also adjusted sorters, tabulators, and printers to provide the written output for the Jamaica Study. Thanks to IBM, the project's success was celebrated by eugenicists worldwide.[i]

A few years after the Jamaica Study, Watson offered IBM's technology to the Third Reich. Using punched card formats remarkably similar to those used in Jamaica, IBM automated major aspects of Hitler's war machine —Luftwaffe bombing runs, train schedules for carrying Jews to camps, and the measures by which Jews were apprehended and exterminated.[ii] IBM engineers worked with their German counterparts to program leased punch card equipment, oversee the collection of data on German citizenry used to determine who was, and who was not a Jew, and to maintain all IBM equipment used by the Nazis in good repair. Most concentration camps had a room, designated the Arbeitseinsatz (forced labor), where IBM equipment kept the gruesome tallies of life and death.

In recognition of IBM's extraordinary service, Hitler created a medal festooned with swastikas, which he pinned on Watson in 1937. Although Watson returned the medal upon America's entrance into the war, IBM's support of Hitler's regime never ended. At the end of the war, when concentration camps were liberated, a special group of IBM employees who'd enlisted in the US Army with financial backing from Watson, rushed to crate IBM equipment for transport back to IBM facilities. (IBM has neither acknowledged its role in the Holocaust nor disputed historical accounts of it.)

With Nazi Germany's defeat, IBM next worked on behalf of apartheid in South Africa, where for decades the company provided computer technology to help classify and segregate the population, producing the passbooks and the database storage designs that made possible the brutal subjugation of black South Africans.[iii]

After the 9/11 attacks, the New York City Police Department created the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative (LMSI), a massive closed-circuit television surveillance hub for thousands of cameras placed around the city. IBM secretly used LMSI camera footage of thousands of unknowing New Yorkers to perfect its facial recognition software to identify people by "hair color, facial hair and skin tone."[iv]

But IBM no longer stands alone. Software from major high-tech firms supports the depredation of human rights. In 2016, Microsoft introduced Tay, a chat-bot designed to interact with and learn from Twitter users. Within 24-hours of its internet release, when asked, "Did the Holocaust happen?" Tay replied, "It was made up." Then Tay tweeted statements like "Hitler was right I hate the Jews," among many other racist and misogynistic utterances.

Facial recognition has supplanted punched cards and passbooks as the technology of choice for monitoring populations. In September 2019, Never Again Action, a Jewish peace group, marched from a Holocaust memorial in Boston to Amazon headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, demanding Amazon cease supplying facial recognition technology for use at US borders. The group cited IBM's involvement in the Holocaust, a link from high-tech's past, as a central reason for Amazon to abort a similar use of its technology in the present.

As Yom Kippur arrives, my thoughts turn toward the Holocaust and the countless number of Jewish lives lost to the savagery of the Third Reich with the support of high-tech. Atonement is appropriate. Repentance is required. Technology users of good conscience need to reflect on this dark history of high-tech used to thwart civil and human rights. And we need to vow that this will never again take place. 


[i] Edwin Black, War Against the Weak. (Washington, DC: Dialog Press, 2012), 292.

[ii] See Edwin Black, IBM and the Holocaust. (Washington, DC: Dialog Press, 2001).

[iii] See, for example, Michael Kwet, "Apartheid in the Shadows: The USA, IBM and South Africa's Digital Police State," CounterPunch, May 3, 2017 and Balintulo v. Ford Motors Co., IBM, General Motors Corp, No. 14–4104 (2nd Cir. July 27, 2015).

[iv] George Joseph and Kenneth Lipp, "IBM Used NYPD Surveillance Footage to Develop Technology That Lets Police Search by Skin Color," The Intercept, September 6, 2018, https://theintercept .com/2018/09/06/nypd-surveillance-camera-skin-tone-search/. 

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Thursday, 17 October 2019