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A minority (computer) report


By Scott Bradner


In an example of life imitating science fiction, it now turns out that a Florida company may have significantly complicated the lives of 120,000 people in a burst of patriotic anti-terrorism fervor. The company says they have no plans to do the same thing again but apparently the only assurance that they are not doing so as you read this is their word.


Police do not have to wait for a crime to be committed in the Philip K. Dick short story, and recent movie, Minority Report. ( Based on the word of 3 people that have been genetically altered so that they have precognition, law enforcement can go after someone that has not (yet) committed any crime. 


Seisint (, a Boca Raton FL based 300 person company, has created the equivalent of the 3 precogs using a big database and some pattern matching software. News reports surfaced in mid May that, shortly after the September 11th terrorist attack, Seisint searched its 4 billion record database looking for people that, using a secret Seisint formula, matched the profile of the hijackers.  They came up with 120,000 names.  Seisint claimed that most of the 80 people who best matched the profile included the hijackers themselves and other people already under investigation for terrorism related reasons.  According to the reports Seisint turned over this list of people to the 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 information.  I suppose it is possible that there are 120,000 proto-terrorists loose in the US.  If that is the case we are in for a very hard time over the next few years but I think it is 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' (MARTIX), used by law enforcement personnel in Florida and four other states to look up information about people they might be interested in.  Information that law enforcement is not permitted to collect for themselves.  MARTIX has been quite controversial since it was first announced in 2002.  There were 13 states that participated when MARTIX started but 8 of those have since dropped out, most due to privacy concerns. 


Seisint claims that they have no plans to use their terrorist-finding software on the MARTIX data but, as you can imagine, not everyone accepts that claim at face value.  (See for the ACLU's take.)  It would not 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, their business depends on ignoring any possible privacy rights individuals might have. They seem to do that quite well.


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