Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A problem with Megan's Law: the price of false inclusion

So what does Megan's Law say the penalty should be for erroneously including someone in a sex offender registry?
Slashdot | Online Sex Offender Database Leads To Murder?

...The LA Times reports on the story of Michael A. Dodele, a convicted rapist, found murdered in a Lakeport trailer park. He moved there after having been released from prison just 35 days before. A 29-year-old construction worker has been arrested in the attack, and explained that he killed Dodele to protect his son from child molestation. He found out on the internet about Dodele being a sex offender, via the 'Megan's Law' database. The public entry for Dodele in the database was wrong — though he was found guilty of committing crimes against adult women he was not a child molester. Dodele's entry in Megan's Law DB has been removed....
Wow, what a coincidence that a bizarre murder would coincidentally expose the only erroneous entry in this online registry.

Gee, there couldn't possibly be other errors, could there?

Your name couldn't be on the list, could it?

Terry Gilliam's brilliant and prescient movie Brazil (inspired by 1984), begins with a data retrieval "bug", that plunges the protagonist into a dystopian nightmare. That movie should be mandatory viewing prior to graduation from an American High School. (That's one more reason I'll never be elected to anything!)

To answer my original question, I suspect that Megan's Law specifies the same penalty for misidentification as the Homeland Security Act.


No price for falsely including a person in a list. A potentially high price for failing to include a person in a list.

Gee. I wonder what error will be more common.

The entity responsible for maintaining such registries (lists) should be required to:
  1. Pay $10,000 for every false entry regardless of injury or lack of injury.
  2. Be liable for triple damages in the result of injury or inconvenience, plus payment of legal fees.
That would reduce the false inclusion error rates significantly. In the case of Homeland Security's Do Not Fly list, I suspect it would eliminate the list.

Note, by the way, I'm not saying it's wrong to publish the details of a person's crime, and to mandate that they should notify the public of their whereabouts [1]. I am saying that we need to reflect on the consequences of the inevitable data entry errors associated with every form of profiling.

[1] That's for another post. This one is about errors in assignment.

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