Data strips people of their humanity

by Andy Oram

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Information--don't we all want more of it? Our government sure does. But a piece of information written down or entered in a database becomes abstract and loses its original meaning. This is fine if you have strictly limited and well-defined goals for collecting the information. But when your dragnet is open-ended, information cheapens humanity. Combined with arrogance and racism, it leads to incidents like what happened in Los Angeles this week.

The United States government recently picked out a dozen Middle Eastern countries and required boys and men from those countries as young as 16 to report to INS offices and register. When they obeyed the law, hundreds were arrested and abused in the frightening conditions described by the Reuters article. The incident inevitably raised the specter of the Nazis, who would order the Jews of a city to meet at a certain time and place, load them into cattle cars, and take them away.

The INS has since reported that most of the men and boys checked out fine and were released within 24 hours. As if that made the arrests OK!

One can rant on for hours about the political meaning of this information screening, but what concerns us as information processing professionals is the light it casts on data gathering and data mining.

I recently found out that my company made some mistakes on my 401K plan. It was routinely corrected, but the results on my account might look strange when taken out of context. Another time, I set off an alarm someplace and drew the police because somebody had mistakenly removed my account from the alarm system. It was for details no greater than these that Middle Eastern men are going to jail.

We do not like to share details about ourselves, because intuitively we sense that people will judge us wrongly. The situation is rarely as dramatic as it was in Los Angeles this week. We often don't tell our friends about medical conditions we have. Perhaps we say, "I don't want to be considered a cancer patient (or a diabetic, or an HIV-positive person, or whatever); I want to be seen for myself."

Many people even express the same restraint through religious doctrine. They say, "Only God can judge." Abstracted from the religious setting, what they're saying is that we cannot treat people fairly when judging them by information that is necessarily limited.

Our government feels no such sense of restraint. It is willing to throw all chances of winning cooperation from the people whose cooperation it needs the most in its current anti-terrorist endeavor--Middle Eastern immigrants. It is determinedly putting in place policies that will violate the civil liberties of all of us, immigrant and native alike. It assumes it can get away with its current violation of human decency, because it assumes that no one will protest except the compatriots of the victims. We must prove it wrong.

Where is the information search taking our country?


2002-12-20 07:31:40
Your Solution for Catching the Bad Guys
So what's your solution for catching the bad guys, without using the techniques that the govt is coming up with such as rounding up the boys and men? Keep in mind that these bad guys have blended themselves so thoroughly into the American society, so as to keep from being found out.
2002-12-20 10:48:47
Your Solution for Catching the Bad Guys
Fair question--even though I never took a job with law enforcement and don't claim to have any expertise at it. It's my job as a citizen to protest injustice and defend civil liberties, but when it comes to "catching bad guys" I can merely throw out some observations as an amateur.

We know that many clues about 9/11/01 went unnoticed or were deliberately ignored by law enforcement. We need an honest evaluation of our law enforcement agencies and what went wrong--something which possibly may happen now that new people have been appointed by President Bush to the responsible task force. We can hire and train better law enforcement officers, build better networks of people concerned with crime and terrorism, and do a better job of sharing information without snooping widely and arbitrarily.

We can show immigrant communities that we care about their needs and want to integrate them in to our diverse society. We can show real concern and humanity for poor people in this country and around the world, (Or maybe we can't--after all, how corrupt is this country? How much do we scorn the hard work and honest attempts to pay for food and housing by the poor?) We can recruit them toward a goal of mutual protection.

We can close real gaps in the security of our society, even though we'll never do a perfect job. We can stop the spread of real weapons of mass destruction (through things like the non-proliferation treaty) instead of going on a violent chase for speculative weapons of mass destruction. We can bite the bullet (no pun intended) and pay for the expensive measures that add some protection to ports, power plants, and so on.

We can reduce the flow of money to terrorists and help cut down the calamity of the upcoming ecological disaster by radically reducing our use of fossil fuels. We can promote solar and hydrogen energies (see an excellent article in a recent issue of The Nation on the prospects for hydrogen energy).

2002-12-20 10:49:25
Solution: pursue only bad guys
According to what I read, the FBI had gained some indication of who the bad guys were from their standard intelligence methods, they just dropped the ball.

As far as blending in, some of the bad guys these days are so camoflauged, you'd think they were members of our own government or military. Take Tim McVeigh: reactionary white boy who thought of himself as a patriot. I guarantee you the anthrax didn't come from Arab people; we're the country that developed it into weapons grade delivery systems and stockpiled it, and the targets were lefty spokespeople, not war hawks.

Along those lines, it might be more effective to do profiling by political affiliation. I'm sure once you start rounding up white Republicans and treating them like this, they might start reading the Constitution too.

2002-12-20 12:23:42
Data/Information distinction
I agree with your title. But, your article makes a slightly different point.

The problem is not information, it's data. When you take information and remove context and relevancy, you get data. It is very easy to collect raw data, but converting this data into information requires careful understanding and thought.

It seems like this distinction is being lost almost everywhere this topic is discussed. The problem from the article is caused by using data as if it were information (or reacting without thinking, if you prefer).

Unfortunately, it seems as if the "solution" presented by many for solving the war on terrorism is to generate more data. But, no one seems to worry about what information will actually be found.

2002-12-21 17:14:49
Your Solution for Catching the Bad Guys
We've proven that those techniques (round
up everyone who looks like them and hope)
are ineffective: we might wish to go back
normal police work. It, although slow and
boring, tends to catch the culprits, not
their co-religionists.


2002-12-22 08:36:48
Data/Information distinction
In the military it's slightly different nomenclature - raw data is information, and the processed result is intelligence. But your basic point is valid. Of course, this is the point Andy was making, too, except using yet again slightly different language.

It's worth making the point that context and relevancy is not being lost in this described case. If data indicate that an individual is Middle Eastern and has visa violations, for example, *and* a decision has been made to act on that combination in a certain way, then that is information. To use your terms.

2002-12-23 11:43:06
Data/Information distinction
Thanks for raising this distinction. I have heard of the data/information debate before, but I believe I am talking about something slightly different. The government had not only data in these cases, but some information--just information that was very limited and possibly slanted. I think this information did possess context, and was more than data. That did not protect people from misuse.

The question of context is interesting, whatever semantics you want to use. Perhaps the problem is not so much the difference between data and information as an old-fashioned problem: the use of power by a government that is not sufficiently intelligent and sensitive to use it humanely.