From Abundant Papers to Limited Pixels: Digitization and Intelligence Reduction in the Brazilian Serviço Nacional de Informações (SNI) in the late 1970s

Mar 21, 2024  | 6pm ET

Lecture at GHI Washington | Speaker: Debora Gerstenberger (University of Cologne)

2024 Spring Lecture Series: Knowledge in the Shadows: Intelligence, Hidden Pasts, and Historians in the U.S. and Germany

Please join us for the second lecture in our Spring 2024 series focusing on intelligence history. Common sense holds that the introduction of digital computers into institutions of state security goes hand in hand with an increase in data and more surveillance. However, the installation of IBM video terminals in Brazil’s intelligence service Serviço Nacional de Informações in 1978 at first had the opposite effect: 95% of about 1.3 million intelligence documents across various archives were eliminated. This talk delves into a close examination of SNI's internal communications, analyzing the digitization process of archival documents within the context of policy adjustments. The central premise of this discussion is the intricate connection between technological change and political transformation.

The lecture will begin promptly at 6:30pm ET. A light reception will preceed the talk from 6:00pm to 6:30pm ET.

About the Lecture Series


Knowledge in the Shadows: Intelligence, Hidden Pasts, and Historians in the U.S. and Germany

With the 2024 spring lecture series at the German Historical Institute Washington, we cordially invite you on a journey through the captivating research field of “Intelligence History.” Featuring leading scholars in the field, our four lectures offer insights into the covert realm of classified information, clandestine knowledge, and power dynamics and the role these have played in the history of the Americas and Germany in the Twentieth Century. To what extent have secret agencies and their practices of gathering information influenced international politics and the course of history? On the home front, how have the delicate relationships between secrecy and democracy evolved over time, evident in public debates and the treatment of individuals today known as “whistleblowers”? The lectures delve into these questions, shedding light on the intricate interplay between secrecy, democracy, and their impact on society. Furthermore, the lectures address the meta-level of research, highlighting the epistemological challenges faced by intelligence historians. How do scholars navigate inaccessible archives and information? What innovative perspectives, (digital) methods and data-driven approaches promise new insights into the world of secret services and declassified files? These inquiries form the cornerstone of our lectures, exploring new horizons in intelligence history. All lectures will be recorded and made available for viewing.

Organized by Jana Keck and Carolin Liebisch-Gümüş (GHI Washington) in cooperation with the International Intelligence History Association, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, German Association for American Studies, and International Spy Museum


A Frank and Open Discussion about the Secret World of Spying February 22, 2024 | 6pm ET
Alexis Albion (International Spy Museum)

From Abundant Papers to Limited Pixels: Digitization and Intelligence Reduction in the Brazilian Serviço Nacional de Informações (SNI) in the late 1970s March 21, 2024 | 6pm ET
Debora Gerstenberger (University of Cologne)

Spy vs. Spy: West German Counterintelligence and GDR Espionage April 18, 2024 | 6pm ET
Michael Wala (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

The History and Future of State Secrecy May 23, 2024 | 6pm ET
Matthew Connelly (Columbia University)

About the Speaker


Debora Gerstenberger is a professor of Latin American History at the University of Cologne. She studied History and Latin American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin and subsequently earned her doctorate at the University of Leipzig with a study on the transfer of the Portuguese royal court to Brazil in the early 19th century. From 2013 to 2022, she was an assistant professor for Latin American History at Freie Universität Berlin. She has a particular interest in questions of power and governance. Her recent research focuses on the history of computing in Latin American, especially the introduction of computer technology in security institutions (military, intelligence, and police).