IT Myths: Does the 'Beast of Brussels' know everything about us?

Invisible tattooed barcodes on our foreheads and a gigantic three-storey supercomputer…
Written by Andy McCue, Contributor

Invisible tattooed barcodes on our foreheads and a gigantic three-storey supercomputer…

"The Beast is here and it knows all about you. Satan must be here – and working in IT." At least that's what one reader told us in our quest to unearth the biggest IT myths.

In fact quite a number of readers out there actually related to us the story of the 'Brussels Beast' and 'Beast 666' – a supercomputer allegedly based in Brussels that collects personal data on all European Union citizens.

Admittedly we thought this one sounded a bit far fetched although with current concerns about the privacy implications of radio frequency ID tags that manufacturers and retailers want to put in to goods to track them, we thought there might be an element of truth somewhere. However this is one IT myth that silicon.com can firmly hit on the head, though the truth is probably a far more interesting tale than the myth itself.

'The Beast' is actually the invention of Christian fiction writer Joe Musser, who included it in his book Behold a Pale Horse in 1970. In the book a gigantic three-storey computer is located in the administrative headquarters of the then Common Market.

Said machine was supposed to track all world trade through monitoring the buying and selling of every citizen on the planet. The self-programming 'Beast' would use unique digital numbers given to every human being and invisibly tattooed by laser on the forehead. These could be seen by infrared scanners at "special verification counters" – or cash tills, to you and us.

So just how did this obscure 1970s sci-fi vision of the future turn into a long-standing urban myth constantly peddled as the truth? Well silicon.com tracked down Joe Musser and asked him that very question.

He told us that the book was turned into a film, called The Rapture, which is apparently still available through GF Communications. We'll let Musser pick up the tale.

"There is a scene in the movie that we shot in one of the [then] Bell Labs facilities, with row upon row of the old computers, with tapes spinning, etc. That footage 'depicted' the computer that I nicknamed the Beast in both the novel and the movie," he said.

To promote the movie's original release in the mid-1970s the producers created a fictional promotional newspaper as a souvenir handout to accompany the film.

Musser said: "Somehow, a Pennsylvania newspaper must have received a clipping taken from that promotional tabloid with the 'end of the world' stories. A reporter apparently wrote an article based on it, which took information from my original idea in the book, also presented in the film, took it as fact, and published it."

Christian Life was another publication that picked up on the 'news' and reported 'The Beast' as fact and the story has since spread around the world.

Musser told us: "The story has taken on a life of its own, and continues to this day. There are those who have come to me to ask if I have heard about the new computer called the Beast that is being used by the European Common Market (or some derivation of the EU) - a computer that tracks all of the information about everyone in the world."

Never one to let a good tale get in the way of the truth, Musser is now writing fiction novels with Oliver North, him of the US Iran-Contra affair, leading to all kinds of political conspiracy theories from his readers.

While 'The Beast' itself is an entertaining piece of fiction, its tech origins might be all too real. Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, is convinced a Beast-like supercomputer did exist in the decade that saw the birth of privacy consciousness as well as disco.

"The existence of an all-seeing über-database would have been a dream for Brussels bureaucrats and government agencies. There would have been a computer like the Beast, but it would have been no more powerful than today's business machines. It wouldn't have functioned on a technological level: data-matching was a litany of errors then."

"Due to the nature of technology in the seventies, it would have been kept in a locked room, in an underground location, with a temperature controlled environment. All that would have added to its feared reputation," he said.

In the interests of balanced reporting silicon.com called the bureaucrats in Brussels to ask them about the existence of their three-story supercomputer. We were, not surprisingly, roundly laughed at down the phone by a spokeswoman who claimed never to have heard of 'The Beast' – though we're not entirely sure we couldn't hear the whirring of computer discs and spinning tapes in the background.

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