Homeland Security's Poor Data Quality May Land You in Jail
The various security laws like the USA Patriot Act can show a darker side to data quality. Following up on my prior post about data quality and how bad data makes its way through a chain of computer systems, imagine the impacts of flawed data when that data is used for law enforcement purposes. This is an area where an error can destroy someone's life.
Because Homeland Security and the TSA (and the FBI and the CIA and local and state police departments) are all collecting data - and thanks to the Patriot Act are free to spy on citizens who are not suspects in any criminal investigation - there is real danger when inaccuracies in one agency's data get widely dispersed. Imagine if bad data is propagated from one system to other databases, and from there to even more databases. Even if the originating agency corrects their data, the corrections may not make their way to all the replicated copies or may show up too late to do any good. This gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies.
The case of the David Nelsons is a perfect example of what can happen when bad data gets into a system. Anyone named David Nelson was targeted for special scrutiny to the point of missed flights and hours-long detention until the enforcers realized this was not the David Nelson they were interested in. Amazingly, the database did not bother to identify specifics, like a middle name or physical address or drivers license number. This meant that anyone named David Nelson from Oregon is suspect.
To make matters worse, there was no way to alert airports further down the line that the current person is not an "interesting" David Nelson and has already been screened. Some people were subject to repeated detentions as they changed planes on subsequent legs of the same flight.
This highlights one of the key problems: the multiple databases and the disconnected nature of systems. Even if one airport cleared David Nelson, the next airport did not know this other than via the obvious fact that he just got off a plane and was booked on another segment. Each airport is an island, and each island has its own copy of the bad data.
We have multiple airports all using data from the same source: the TSA. Nobody knows where the TSA got their data because they keep their "can't fly" criteria and lists secret, even though this practice makes flying less secure by making it easier for someone to subvert the system. This is typical of most government attempts to increase security over the past two years.
If this happens to you, assuming you can get the information corrected, you will probably still be fighting the bad data sitting in the backwaters of some regional TSA office and find yourself unexpectedly detained.
Now magnify this annoying but minor incident with some of the other federal efforts, like the "Total Information Awareness" program that was renamed the "Terrorist Information Awareness" program in an effort to make everyone feel better about the Orwellian goals. The feds will build a database on everyone in the US, just in case the data might be useful, and share that with other shadowy federal organizations. Now the bad data could be feeding into police surveillance programs, suspect questioning or even detentions. And there is no mechanism in place to review the data for accuracy or correct it and any downstream uses.
Each error in the data has the potential for a huge cost in misdirected law enforcement, diverting security efforts and making us less secure. And bad data is a very difficult, almost intractable problem, particular when secretive government agencies are involved. Let's hope these massive surveillance data warehouse projects are stopped before too many people are sent to Cuba because of bad data.
Posted by Mark Tuesday, July 08, 2003 5:51:00 PM |