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Database Nation by Simson Garfinkel

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The Metrocard Story

The day after I started my book tour for Database Nation, I had a radio interview in New York City with Larry Freund, a reporter with the Voice of America. Freund handed me an article from the New York Post describing how New York City police were getting access to records from the subway system's computers. It seems that the Metropolitan Transit Authority had instructed the computers to remember every time that each MetroCard in the city was used. The police had heard of the database and had initiated a practice of seizing subway passes from people being arrested: one call to the transit authority, and the police could get a printout of every subway station at which the arrested person's card had been used.

According to the Post article, the police had already used this capability to disprove a number of alibis. In one case, a person was arrested as a suspect in the robbery of a convenience store. The suspect said he had not left Staten Island on the day of the crime, but the computer said that his MetroCard had been used five minutes after the crime at a subway station around the corner from the store. The Post journalist cited several other cases in which this system had disproved alibis, and one in which it proved an alibi (which caused the police to go looking for another suspect).

What was most disturbing about the Post article, however, was the completely uncritical tone in which the article was written. When the MTA announced that it was deploying the new ...

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