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government database fallacies

In follow-up of yesterday's post on function creep, there are of course a lot more arguments against government-created central databases of personal data - or indeed of any kind. A number of them are IT-related, as governments seem to dangerously misjudge the nature of digital information.

Whether this is naivety (after all, current politicians may just be of a generation that is too old to grasp such issues) or hubris, it's hard to say. But in the Netherlands at least, we keep seeing old-paradigm thinking - a belief in centralized and Kafkaesque bureaucracies - applied to new-paradigm tools that favor decentralised, transparent solutions.

At least three fallacies plague the rethoric around government IT projects:

  • Feasability: As Raphaël points out, "we're pouring hundreds of millions of euros of public money in IT projects that are risky and shaky in so many ways, it'd be a miracle if they were successful, purely from a technical and project management standpoint." However, with such enormous projects tendered to large IT firms, it would also be a miracle if they'd advise against it.
  • Security: Every government IT project comes with endless guarantees of data security, but the list of embarrassing failures is just as long. The rule of thumb here, as the entertainment industry has learned the hard way, is: "Every time a 40-year-old creates a security system, a 14-year-old thinks of a way around it." Obviously, this is a battle you can't win.
  • Accuracy: There is an almost superstitious belief in the accuracy of information on screens. But however digital the database, filling it is still the work of humans - whether by typing, scanning or fingerprinting - and thus prone to mistakes. And the more information you gather in one place, the more mistakes it will contain.

Note that this doesn't even include the question of how effective such databases could be in their stated purpose (catching terrorists, improving health, etc.). This has never been even sketchily proven either way.

But combine the above in actual policies and it conjures up bizarre situations where half-functioning databases determine that some random 4-year-old must be refused on a flight because he's on a suspected terrorist list. Even worse, there appears to be no way to remove the kid from the list...

Update: This article in Trouw (in Dutch) by a number of ICT law professors, eloquently substantiates my rant. For instance, they state (loosely translated) that "not a single organization has proven capable to safeguard data adequately for long periods of time."

function creep

Function creep is "the way in which information that has been collected for one limited purpose, is gradually allowed to be used for other purposes which people may not approve of." It is one of the principal dangers of all the central databases that governments - and particularly the Dutch government - are currently creating.

The latest example is a database that will store fingerprints of all citizens. Recently approved by the Dutch Senate, it was passed off as the implementation of a European directive for including fingerprints in passports, though storing this information in a central database is actually a Dutch extension. Similar proposals were voted down in other EU countries like Germany, for obvious privacy concerns.

Other databases in the Netherlands containing personal information include:

  • Medical dossier (this one has an opt-out)
  • Children's dossier
  • Mobile phones and internet
  • Public transportation
  • Car traffic

In all cases the information is collected for one stated function, usually health or safety (e.g. catching terrorists), and all other uses are ostensibly restricted. In the case of the fingerprints database, it can be used for criminal investigations only in very specific instances.

However, after a while the database becomes a given and using the information for other purposes becomes more and more tempting. The argument then becomes: if we have all this information, why not use it? In fact, with the notoriously short memory of politics, the question might even be reversed into: why did we gather all this information in the first place, if not to use it?

By that time, there will be such a wealth of data to mine that cross-referencing between databases will become the next temptation. And once that becomes accepted, we'll all be suspect until proven innocent...

For a UK example of this phenomenon, see 'Function creep: surveillance in London'.

the rose of time

when the watchman falls asleep
you turn back with the storm
to grow old embracing is
the rose of time

when bird roads define the sky
you look behind at the sunset
to emerge in disappearance is
the rose of time

when the knife is bent in water
you cross the bridge stepping on flute-songs
to cry in the conspiracy is
the rose of time

when a pen draws the horizon
you're awakened by a gong from the East
to bloom in echoes is
the rose of time

in the mirror there is always this moment
this moment leads to the door of rebirth
the door opens to the sea
the rose of time

- Bei Dao, translated by Eliot Weinberger

De roos van de tijd

als de deurwacht diep in slaap is
keer je om met de storm
en wat oud wordt in omhelzing is
de roos van de tijd

als de weg van de vogel de hemel afbakent
kijk je terug naar de zon die zakt
en wat verdwijnt in verdwijning is
de roos van de tijd

als het mes breekt in het water
vetrap je fluitspel op de brug
en wat het uitschreeuwt in complot is
de roos van de tijd

als de pen een einder tekent
schrik je wakker van de gong van het oosten
en wat opengaat in weerklank is
de roos van de tijd

in de spiegel is eeuwig dit ogenblik
dit ogenblik leidt naar de poort van nieuw leven
en die poort staat open naar zee
de roos van de tijd

- Bei Dao, translated by Maghiel van Crevel

Van Crevel talked about translating Dao at Poetry International tonight. Though he discussed another poem (not online), the difficulties of poetry translation are nicely illustrated by 'The Rose of Time' as well, especially when comparing different translations.

For instance, Van Crevel's Dutch translation has "when the knife breaks" (instead of "is bent"), and in the next line "you crush flute-songs on the bridge" - both more violent images than Weinberger uses. Another, syntactical difference is that where the English uses "to ... is / the rose of time", the Dutch uses "that which" or "what ... is / the rose of time". Though the latter is perhaps less elegant in English, it does seem to put more emphasis on the poem's attempt to define the fleeting, mysterious concept of time.

A more puzzling difference is between Weinberger's "emerge in disappearance" and Van Crevel's "disappear in disappearance" - did either of them make an error here, or does the Chinese allow for both readings? Though Weinberger's version sounds more likely, both versions actually fit the context: the poem constantly juxtaposes appearing / disappearing, opening / closing, dying / being born. In fact, "the rose of time" seems to be born in the moment between...

Compare also this alternative English translation, titled 'The Roses of Time' (note the plural), which seems inferior if only for the redundancy in its "when the pen draws a line of horizon".

And for more Dao translations by Weinberger, see these Thirteen poems.

waiting for a ball

In 1998, photographer Hans van der Meer published his photo book 'Dutch Fields' ('Hollandse Velden'), a superbly satirical look at amateur football. Its carefully framed images, taken on drizzly Sunday mornings on forlorn fields, captured the make-belief of grown men being football stars before nonexisting crowds. As wry observations of football's rituals, they exposed something of the absurdity of all human activity.

Hans van der Meer - Dutch Fields

Since then, Van der Meer went on to photograph European football fields, "as far away from the Champions League as possible". The result, 'European Fields, the Landscape of Lower League Football', possibly surpasses its Dutch predecessor in its almost Beckettian estrangement.

The book's subtitle identifies a central strategy in Van der Meer's photos: even though he portrays people, his photos are essentially landscapes. Whether it's a Dutch polder, a Swiss meadow or Mediterranean seaside gravel, his subjects always look lost in their surroundings, frozen in the middle of some strange enacted drama.

Hans van der Meer - European Fields

Much of this drama consists of waiting, which is in itself a rather absurd activity but even more so when it concerns organized waiting for a ball. In maybe half of the images (I should count this) the ball is not even in the frame. Or, in one hilarious instance, the ball is high up in the sky and all the players are just gazing at it, waiting for it to come down. (There's also a separate collection of his photos of goal keepers, mostly just watching the action elsewhere and waiting for it to come to them.)

The Nederlands Fotomuseum just opened an exhibition showing Van der Meer's football photographs, along with other work including an older series from Budapest and a new projects in Dutch suburbs. Definitely worth seeing up close in large prints.

how to be invisible

Kate Bush has a great homespun recipe for invisibility, from her latest album, 'Aerial'. The main ingredient: "a pinch of keyhole".

I found a book on how to be invisible
Take a pinch of keyhole
And fold yourself up
You cut along a dotted line
You think inside out
And you’re invisible

Eye of Braille
Hem of anorak
Stem of wallflower
Hair of doormat

I found a book on how to be invisible
On the edge of the labyrinth
Under a veil you must never lift
Pages that you must never turn
In the labyrinth
You stand in front of a million doors
And each one holds a million more
Corridors that lead to the world
Of the invisible
Corridors that twist and turn
Corridors that blister and burn

Eye of Braille
Hem of anorak
Stem of wallflower
Hair of doormat
Is that the wind from the desert song?
Is that the autumn leaf falling?
Or is that you walking home?

Is that the wind from the desert song?
Is that the autumn leaf falling?
Or is that you walking home?
Is that a storm in the swimming pool?

You take a pinch of keyhole
And fold yourself up
You cut along a dotted line
You think inside out
You jump ’round three times
You jump into the mirror
And you’re invisible

hex empire

One of those casual time-wasting online games that got the addiction factor right is Hex Empire, by Meta Sauce. Basically a variation of Risk, it's a strategy game on a generated map of hexagonal fields, where you battle three enemy AI armies. So far so standard, until you realize it's really a game of logistics.

With each turn your armies grow and you get to move five of them, but as you conquer more territory, your supply lines become longer, which means attacking becomes largely a matter of rallying armies to the front. (This problem doesn't really occur in Risk, as you can place your armies anywhere you like.)

The trick, then, is to find the right balance between supply and attack - you need to calculate your campaigns. However simple the game, this feature (combined with endless maps to play on) creates enough strategic options for repeated playing...