Ok computer: A history of the Wanganui Computer

by Paul Little / 18 April, 2017
In 1982, a 22-year-old anarchist blew himself up outside the Wanganui Computer building.

The glorified mail opener that was the Wanganui Computer.

Judging from reports at the time, there used to be only one computer in New Zealand, and its name was the Wanganui Computer.

George Orwell’s portentous phrase “Big Brother is watching” – his novel 1984’s refrain to describe state surveillance of private citizens – was never more widely bandied about than in the months surrounding the 1976 inauguration of the computer, more properly known as the National Law Enforcement Data Base (NLEDB).

This was, as the NZHistory website puts it, “New Zealand’s first centralised electronic database [established] through the Wanganui Computer Centre Act”. It was also the first time a New Zealand computer had its own Act of Parliament. It was set up by the State Services Commission and the information it amassed was initially available to and shared by the police, the Land Transport Safety Authority and the Department of Justice. The mighty Sperry mainframe needed its own multi-storey building to accommodate it.

Today, we struggle with the problem of stopping people sharing their private information through social media, but back then it was widely believed that people’s private affairs were their private affairs, and the prospect of state-sponsored sticky-beaking raised much alarm.

The NLEDB’s range of sources was severely limited by the available technology, however. There was no dodgy website-visiting to monitor, because there were no websites, dodgy or otherwise. There were no online purchases to observe or movements of money to track between digital bank accounts. Instead, the computer kept records of whatever was to hand: criminal convictions, penalties, car registrations and gun licences; possibly, on quiet days, old shopping lists and handwritten recipes for Grandma’s scones.

The computer was really little more than a glorified mail handler, steaming open virtual envelopes in order to peruse their contents. Police and others wanting to access the information on the database had to do so through terminals located in their stations and offices.

The darkest day in the centre’s history was November 18, 1982, when self-described punk anarchist Neil Roberts, 22, mounted an attack on the building with a homemade bomb and killed himself in the process. Nowadays, we’d call it an “attempt to raise awareness”.

The previous year’s Springbok Tour and the increasingly polarising leadership style of PM Rob Muldoon had introduced an element of radicalism to political thought outside the mainstream. From friends’ accounts, it seems Roberts had long planned to end his own life as a political statement. “Here’s one anarchist down,” he wrote, shortly before his demise. “Hopefully there’s a lot more waking up. One day we’ll win – one day.”

The computer struggled on, attempting to meet the increasingly complicated needs of law enforcement and make itself relevant, before finally being shut down in 2005, just shy of its 30th birthday. A scheme called INCIS (Integrated National Crime Information System) was supposed to have taken over its functions in the 1990s, but had exceeded its original budget of $98 million by around $20 million by the time the government pulled the plug in 1999.

A “did not-did too” stoush between the government and INCIS provider IBM was resolved by the company paying a $25 million settlement. According to then Finance Minister Bill Birch, “The Prime Minister [Jenny Shipley], on August 16 this year, announced her intention to hold an inquiry into the lessons that could be learned from the INCIS project.”

How effective that inquiry and any lessons learnt from it have been in bringing to an end cost overruns on public projects or incidents of corporations being paid over the odds for supplying governments, readers will be able to judge for themselves. 

The same can probably be said for concerns over privacy and government access to individuals’ privately stored information. As Police Deputy Commissioner Lyn Provost said, when noting in 2005 that the initial controversy over the Wanganui Computer in the 1970s had taken several years to die down, “Now we just presume information will be stored on computers.” Which rather proves the original critics’ point.   

 

This was published in the March 2017 issue of North & South.


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