The Darker Side Of Analytics

July 16, 2009
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I recently read an article in one of the major Dutch newspapers (warning – it’s in Dutch!) about their Government’s moves to prevent crime by profiling citizens. The announcement was made by the Minister Of Justice and, not surprisingly, it has caused some discussion within The Netherlands. I wonder what the reaction in Australia would be if the Federal Government announced that all Australians were to be profiled?

Here’s what the Dutch Government is proposing:
  • using ‘digital techniques’ (whatever they are) to create profiles of people
  • initially this will consist of information on: 
    • banking 
    • flight 
    • internet use 
  • citizen profiles will then be compared to profiles of convicted criminals
  • if/when a match is found, government officials will be sent and email or sms alerting them of this ‘fact’. 

The example use quoted by the minister is for a very worthy cause: preventing pedophiles from traveling to countries where child prostitution occurs.

But if you look at the wider picture: wow, the implications are serious and widespread!

I wonder how many times their ‘digital techniques’

I recently read an article in one of the major Dutch newspapers (warning – it’s in Dutch!) about their Government’s moves to prevent crime by profiling citizens. The announcement was made by the Minister Of Justice and, not surprisingly, it has caused some discussion within The Netherlands. I wonder what the reaction in Australia would be if the Federal Government announced that all Australians were to be profiled?

Here’s what the Dutch Government is proposing:
  • using ‘digital techniques’ (whatever they are) to create profiles of people
  • initially this will consist of information on: 
    • banking 
    • flight 
    • internet use 
  • citizen profiles will then be compared to profiles of convicted criminals
  • if/when a match is found, government officials will be sent and email or sms alerting them of this ‘fact’. 

The example use quoted by the minister is for a very worthy cause: preventing pedophiles from traveling to countries where child prostitution occurs.

But if you look at the wider picture: wow, the implications are serious and widespread!

I wonder how many times their ‘digital techniques’ will create false positives and (presumably) false information being sent out?

I remember a situation some years ago when I owned a company in Silicon Valley and still lived in Amsterdam. I was traveling very regularly between the two places and I was profiled by US Customs solely on the basis that Amsterdam is famous for tulips and a couple of more seedy chemical habits. The conversations were pleasant and short-lived – but I would hate to be having similar conversations if, say, my next business was in Bangkok and my own Government was telling a foreign country “watch out” for this guy simply because I had a pattern of travel to Thailand that was similar to some disgusting criminal who had served time in The Netherlands!

    It couldn’t happen, could it?

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