Nonviolent political activists labeled “terrorists” due to insufficient database development.

database schema
Originally uploaded by gnizr

While the foibles of technology users are good for a laugh when a doctor’s fat-fingered keystroke results in telling a 71-year-old man that he’s pregnant, the problem becomes considerably more disturbing when Maryland State Police label antiwar and anti-death penalty protesters “terrorists” just because they didn’t see a better selection in the drop-down box.

Note that the police fully admit that they have zero evidence that the protesters in question were actually engaged in any acts of violent crime. But they were labeled “terrorists” in cross-jurisdictional law enforcement databases because the developers of the software didn’t see fit to add any better options, and because the people responsible for the data entry didn’t see fit to choose a less loaded option.

And this is exactly the kind of erroneous, boneheaded move that could come back to bite innocent people in the butts later- these databases are the data stores mined by federal law enforcement and security personnel. So if this had happened after the launch of the TSA’s Secure Flight program, these people could have found themselves unable to board an airplane because they like to walk around holding signs in the air.

So much for the “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about” argument. We cannot count on government databases to keep us safe while respecting the rights of innocent citizens if we cannot count on the accuracy of the data being reported.

I’m going to go adjust my tin foil hat now.

Tiffany Baxendell Bridge is an Internet enthusiast and an incurable smartass. When not heckling the neighborhood political scene on Twitter, she can be found goofing off with her ukulele, Bollywood dancing, or obsessing about cult TV. She is That Woman With the Baby In the Bar.

Tiffany lives in Brookland with her husband Tom, son Charlie, and two high-maintenance cats. Read why Tiffany loves DC.

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2 thoughts on “Nonviolent political activists labeled “terrorists” due to insufficient database development.

  1. I don’t buy the DB excuse for a second. They’re just making some hay with the “oh, technology!” excuse while they still can. In a few years nobody is going to be able to get away with this old saw anymore.

    The real tell here is in the comments of former state police superintendent Thomas E. Hutchins, who is quoted as saying “I don’t believe the First Amendment is any guarantee to those who wish to disrupt the government.” Certainly that’s true for serious cases of “disrupt,” but does our government – or any of us – have some right to be completely free of any disruption or inconvenience at all times?

    The idea that it’s reasonable to hamstring, say, death penalty advocates or opponents who want to make their voices heard is just offensive, insane, and anti-democratic.

  2. I agree, but I think the “oh, technology” excuse needs to be called out when it’s a total lie. This wasn’t a database error. BEST case, it was USER error (worst case, user malfeasance), which is my point.

    I think it’s important to point this out in a time when we have federal agencies building and testing ever larger databases in the name of keeping us all safe. I don’t object to the principle of data collection and analysis- I object to the PRACTICE of it because I have first-hand experience with the ridiculous way people use their databases. And the wider the range of users entering stuff into your database, the greater the number of morons there will be to screw it up. Which might be an acceptable cost of doing business for a lot of commercial databases- no one’s human/civil/Constitutional rights are violated if Amazon miscalculates my fiction preferences- but it is absolutely NOT a way to determine who is and is not a terrorist, who is and is not detained at airports, etc.

    Technology cannot save us because it is dependent on the judgment and discretion of users, and some users just don’t have any.