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Nov 30 2015   2:49PM GMT

13 Ways (Besides the Obvious) Trump’s ‘Muslim Database’ is Bad

Sharon Fisher Sharon Fisher Profile: Sharon Fisher

Tags:
Database
privacy
Security

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump recently indicated that he would at least consider setting up a database to track Muslims. While he’s since to some degree backed away from it, it still makes an interesting thought experiment in the context of database design and public policy – if only to point out how very, very fraught such a thing would be.

Needless to say, the whole notion of such a database is problematic. Any student of American history, ranging from the Japanese internment to McCarthyism, can explain this. But simply as a technical issue, here’s all the reasons it’s impractical.

  1. How do we define “Muslim”? Self-defined? Your parents were? What if one parent was? How devout do you have to be to “count”? (Theoretically, the U.S. could use the definition of Jewish that the Nazis used, but that might be politically unpopular.)
  2. Similarly, which people “in” the U.S. would need to register? Citizens? Students? (That should go over well with the colleges and universities that count on foreign student tuition.) Visitors? How long do you have to be in the country before you sign up? Do they get removed from the database when they leave?
  3. Just what information is going to be tracked? And how does it get updated when it’s changed? Keep in mind how challenging it is even to ensure that voter rolls are kept up to date.
  4. How do you get people to sign up? If it’s voluntary, do we really think that people with terrorist leanings are going to meekly put their names on a database? If not, how do you enforce signups? Where do you get the data to begin with to find the people you want to sign up? The census, for example, no longer tracks religion.
  5. On the other hand, how do you keep non-Muslims from signing up as an “I am Spartacus” act of protest? Following the (sadly untrue) belief that World War II’s King Christian of Denmark wore a yellow star to show solidarity with Jews, a number of people have already indicated that they plan to identify as Muslim should any such system be implemented. Do we just shrug and say ok, if you want to say you’re Muslim, you are?
  6. If you don’t just register yourself, how do you deal with false positives? Remember that even Senator Ted Kennedy has been put on a terrorism no-fly list.
  7. Who’s going to provide this database? While companies such as IBM reportedly worked with the Nazis during World War II, many vendors these days consider themselves progressive. It’s difficult to believe, for example, that Google or Facebook would cooperate with such an effort.
  8. Similarly, who’s going to set this up and work on it? Presumably this would be a government effort, perhaps through the Department of Homeland Security. But how many techies are actually going to consent to work on this? It doesn’t seem like the sort of project where outsourcing is going to be a good idea, you know?
  9. More to the point, how do you ensure that protesting techies don’t sabotage it in some way? Does anyone think that Anonymous – which is doing its own work to help reduce terrorism – is going to let this database stay up and functioning properly for more than ten seconds? Won’t an effort like this spawn a dozen Edward Snowdens who want people to know what their country is doing?
  10. Aside from the politically motivated hackers, how is the database going to be secured, both for the amount of personally identifiable information it would have and from the people who might decide to use it to take out their Muslim neighbors?
  11. How much is this going to cost? And where’s the money going to come from? Michigan, for example, has paid HP $33 million to develop a replacement for its Secretary of State’s system. The state’s population is about 9 million, right in the 5 to 12 million range estimated for the number of Muslims in the U.S.
  12. How long is this going to take? Going back to Michigan, the state is now suing HP for $49 million after the company took more than ten years and still didn’t deliver a working product.
  13. Finally, keep in mind that every organization from the ACLU to the EFF would be taking the government to court on this, which would mean development would take even more time.

In short, even if this database were a good idea, it would be years before the data could be used. Hopefully, by then, we’ll have wised up.

13  Comments on this Post

 
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  • asimansari

    Very good Points, By the time this whole effort is undertaken, Trump (if elected highly doubtful) will either be out of office or impeached.

    These points are very good to intense for someone like Trump to consider, he is pandering to the very small group of voters.

    This will never happen. Against the constitution.

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  • veteren
    Just couldn't resist getting political could you.....
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  • Sharon Fisher
    Me or the previous commenter?
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  • veteren
    You Ms. Fisher.  Although as there is nothing else going in in the industry I see your dilemma.
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  • Jay Dugan

    Funny thing, you never see any criticism of Obama's policies here.

    Here's a suggestion: "10 Reasons Why it's a Dumb Idea to Blame Terrorism on Man Caused Climate Change.

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  • Blogged
    I would recommend sending/explaining it to the Don, but he has no time to waste on logical/practical/real issues.
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  • Sharon Fisher
    Veteren, you must be new here. I write about public policy all the time.

    Jay, it'd be pretty hard for me to find a storage angle in that one. However, here's some other stories I've done that criticize actions by the Obama administration:

    https://itknowledgeexchange.techtarget.com/storage-disaster-recovery/a-look-at-the-nsa-recordings-as-a-big-data-storage-problem/

    https://itknowledgeexchange.techtarget.com/storage-disaster-recovery/european-governments-slam-door-on-transferring-data-to-u-s/

    https://itknowledgeexchange.techtarget.com/storage-disaster-recovery/egypts-internet-blockage-could-it-happen-here/
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  • Korgarath
    Playing devils advocate, I see problems with some of these points. 4. The data must be source-able from somewhere, anyone who has applied for a job/visa/got married/had children must have given this information over at some point at a place where the Government can get at it. Is America really that different from the UK in that regard? I know over here you're always having to state your ethnicity and religious beliefs.

    5 & 6. You could just discount people with non-foreign sounding names. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are not Western-born converts so for sake of ease that could be an option that Trump explores. Also back to 4. you could also apply this to finding people you want to sign up as well. Send letter/enforcers only to anyone with a name like Abdul, Mohammed etc. 

    7, 8. For a lot of people, money conquers at all. It is amazing how many people will turn their backs on their principles for a large reward. If you think everyone who possesses great technical knowledge is a good person you couldn't really be more wrong, look at all the black hat hackers who use their skills for personal gain - they could easily be recruited to work on this should they get paid enough. 

    9. I assume the NSA would naturally have a huge role in securing and implementing this, going back to the above their salaries could be increased to keep more Snowdens from popping up. Who is to say Snowden would have cropped up at all if he was offered a lot of money to keep quiet?

    11. 12. The U.S Government is already $17 trillion in debt last time I checked. If they really feel like they need something doing, they will do it no matter the cost. 

    Though really, I agree with you in that the idea is impractical on the whole. I am in fact sure Trump knows this and is just saying things he will never do to appeal to his core voter base, you don't get to be a millionaire running for President by being completely thick.
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  • LegalAlien
    Homeland Security already has the SEVIS database, used to track foreign students on visas in the US. Many of your points relate similarly to that database (which I am on). 
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  • wendygoerl
    People, people. "Database" is not "registry." I can put together a "database" of drivers in my hometown just by sitting at a stoplight and watching them. I can figure out what the most popular make and vehicle type are. I can make a study on whether men or women are more likely to use their turn signals. Requires no cooperation on their part at all. All you need for a Muslim database is funding for some think tank to take notes about activities and events know to have a high proportion of Muslims.
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  • abadvany
    How will you do that Wendy if you don't know who the Muslims are? The women don't all run around wearing black face covers and the men aren't all wearing white gowns.  All Arabs aren't Muslim so assuming every one from Egypt or Iran is won't work likewise assuming someone isn't muslim because they're blond with green eyes is wrong too.  So you can't make your "data base" if you can't gather your data. That's all she's saying
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  • abadvany
    Incidentally people from Iran aren't even Arab they're Persian.
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  • wendygoerl
    abadvany, if you had read my ENTIRE post instead of just scanning it until you found a point you thought you could attack, I already told you: You just watch someplace known to be frequented by Muslims. To continue my example, I don't go to a restaurant and try to pick the drivers out of the passengers and pedestrians, I look for them at stoplights.
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