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A minority (computer) report

Opinion
May 31, 20043 mins
Networking

In an example of life imitating science fiction, it now turns out that a Florida company might have significantly complicated the lives of 120,000 people in a burst of patriotic anti-terrorism fervor. The company says it has no plans to do the same thing again but apparently the only assurance of that is the company’s word.

Police do not have to wait for a crime to be committed in the Philip K. Dick short story-turned-movie, “Minority Report” turned movie. Based on the word of three people that have been genetically altered so that they have precognition, law enforcement can go after someone who has not (yet) committed any crime.

Seisint, a Boca Raton, Fla., company with 300 employees, has created the equivalent of the three “precogs” by using a big database and some pattern-matching software. News reports surfaced in mid-May that, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Seisint searched its 4 billion-record database looking for people who, based on a secret Seisint formula, matched the profile of the hijackers. Seisint came up with 120,000 names. The company claimed that most of the 80 people who best matched the profile included the actual hijackers and other people already under investigation for terrorism-related reasons. According to the reports, Seisint turned over this list to federal and state law enforcement authorities. In at least one presentation, Seisint bragged that a number of people had been arrested as a result of this data.

I suppose it’s possible that there are 120,000 proto-terrorists loose in the U.S. If that’s the case then we’re in for a very hard time over the next few years. But I think it’s far more likely that almost all of them never had, or were likely to have, a terrorist thought.

Seisint is the same company that runs the Multistate Anti-terrorism Information Exchange (MATRIX) used by law enforcement personnel in Florida and four other states to look up information about people they might be interested in. This is information law enforcement agencies are not permitted to collect for themselves. MATRIX has been quite controversial since it was announced in 2002. Thirteen states participated when MATRIX started, but eight of those have since dropped out, most because of privacy concerns.

Seisint says it has no plans to use its terrorist-finding software on the MATRIX data but, as you can imagine, not everyone accepts that claim at face value (see the American Civil Liberties Union’s take). It wouldn’t be fun to have to explain to the airport screeners why your name appears on a list of potential terrorists when you have no way to know that a pattern-matching computer program, with no legal requirement for accuracy, put you on the list.

Seisint’s basic business is keeping information about people. In addition to running MATRIX, Seisint offers services to, for example, let you “gain an understanding into your potential employees.” In other words, the company’s business depends on ignoring any possible privacy rights individuals might have. Seisint seems to do that quite well.

Disclaimer: Federal law does not let educational institutions such as Harvard ignore privacy rights, at least of students, but Harvard did not comment on this topic