Databases: Creating a New Digital Divide

Much to her surprise, a few weeks ago, a woman in Florida was sent a letter informing her that because of her death she had been stricken from the voter rolls. It seems that for the second time, the Social Security Administration had confused her with a woman of the same name and incorrectly alerted Florida election officials that she had passed away.

To resurrect herself in the eyes of state authorities, the woman was forced to obtain a "non-death" certificate from the Florida Health Department. Yet, her efforts appear to have been in vain for she has been declared dead once again and denied the right to vote in the upcoming presidential election.

In this Age of Enlightenment, as a society, we pray before the alter of "objective" data -- and nothing is more impartial, accurate, and trusted than data. Yet, horror stories abound of individuals getting lost in a Kafka-esque world of bureaucracy simply because of an erroneous keystroke.

As debates rage over whether battleground states should be granted access to DHS immigration databases to purge non-citizens from voter rolls, the most dangerous implication is not voting rights, but rather the growing reliance on databases. With America's unwavering faith in the sanctity of data, we have let electronic files govern nearly every aspect of our lives with little thought to the consequences.

Essentially, the root of the problem lies in the gap between our digital selves and our physical selves. We've ceded power to our electronic profiles and now our physical beings matter less than the data -- the person in front of the immigration agent, poll worker, or bank teller is meaningless compared to what is on the screen.

In other words, data now constructs our identity rather than vice versa. That is to say, if the Social Security Administration believes you are dead, then you are denied all the rights of the living, even if you appear in person. Meanwhile, if some esoteric database believes you are a child molester, illegal immigrant, or convicted felon, then you must deal with the consequences whether it is deportation, rejection from jobs, or being ostracized by your neighbors until you can rectify the error.

What's more disturbing is that it is impossible to create a database that is error free. For instance, numerous audits show that E-Verify, the government database employers use to check the immigration status of potential employees, has an error rate of roughly 5 percent. While E-Verify's error rate is relatively low, an estimated 800,000 American workers will lose their jobs because of inaccurate results and another 3.6 million will have to spend hours correcting the system's mistakes.

But it's not always as dramatic as that. Everything we see, read, or hear is increasingly filtered by carefully constructed profiles based on data collected from our consumer habits, demographic information, and online web histories.

Are we the sum of our purchases at supermarkets? Is our taste defined by what we search for on YouTube or Google? I would hope not. What it means to be a cognitive human being extends far deeper and is more meaningful than what an algorithm can deduce with a few bytes of processing power.

So how do we assert the primacy of our physical identities and staunch the tide of data that is sweeping across the world with smartphones and social apps recording every bit and byte of our existence? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.

"What really matters is what you like, not what you are like," Rob Fleming, the protagonist of Nick Hornsby's High Fidelity, haughtily declares, only to discover later that in actuality, the opposite is true. In time, hopefully we too as a society can learn this lesson and place a greater emphasis on the individual rather than the data.