Abstract: Database Panic: The Computerization of Consumer Credit Reporting in the United States

Josh Lauer

Abstract

In 1966 a U.S. congressional committee was formed to investigate a proposed federal database that would allow several agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Census Bureau, to share statistical information. The hearings featured grandstanding denunciations of state surveillance and fear-mongering predictions about an Orwellian computer society. The government database was nixed, but the hearings produced a more startling discovery: the American public was already under the surveillance of private-sector databases operated by consumer credit bureaus. In this paper I examine the computerization of American consumer credit bureaus during the mid-1960s and the significant challenges—financial, technical, and logistical—that they faced. While many banks and large retailers were quick to adopt computer systems during the early 1960s, credit bureaus were initially left behind. The impetus to automate, however, emerged in 1965 when one firm, Credit Data Corporation (CDC), opened the first computerized bureau in Los Angeles. CDC's entrance into the field immediately touched off a race to computerize among the nation's leading consumer credit reporting organizations.