If It’s Not in the Database…

The other day, my wife attempted to book a hotel room online, a relatively simple task even for those of us who had to learn computers at an advanced age, say, over thirty when we first encountered what then passed for personal computation. Everything went fine until she attempted to enter our home address.

Her reservation was rejected because our actual street name did not match the one in U.S. Postal Service database. The Postal Service address eliminates the word “south” and runs together the last two words. We did manage to figure it out and get the reservation, but, frankly, this sort of hassle could foreshadow a far greater problem.

After the momentary hassle was resolved, I looked at my driver’s license. It shows the correct street address, and not the one that the Postal Service database says is “correct.” Then I went outside and looked at the street sign. The name on the sign matches my driver’s license and the legal description on our property tax. But… the government database gives the wrong address.

Does that mean at sometime in the future, if we have more security crackdowns at airports, I — or my wife or some other unfortunate soul whose address does not match — will be dragged aside because the database used by the government is flawed, and because computers aren’t smart enough to figure out that a phrase like “West Ridge” might be the same as “Westridge?”

So long as the mail gets here, I don’t much care whether it’s addressed to the equivalent of West Ridge or Westridge, but I do care when the wrong terms get put in a computer that may well affect my personal freedom because the correct address is flagged as being “wrong” in a federal database. As we all know, computers aren’t that “smart.” If it doesn’t match, it doesn’t match. Now… all one has to do is to combine a literal-minded security official with a faulty database before the difficulties begin. We’ve already had the spectacle of a five-year-old [as I recall] boy being denied passage on an airliner because his name matched that of a suspicious person.

Years ago, I thought the story [whose name and author I’ve forgotten] that had an innocent man being executed because a computer glitch turned a citation for overdue library books into a murder conviction was amusing… and far-fetched. Now… I’m beginning to worry that such a possibility is neither. What concerns me even more is that I haven’t seen much written about such cases as an indication of a systemic problem, rather than isolated instances that will just go away or be the problem of a few individuals. But what if I — or you — happen to be those individuals?

Just how are we going to prove that the database is wrong — especially in time to catch the flight or avoid detention as a suspicious individual?