Sunday, 3 August 2008

online criminal records searches

New York Times op-ed piece on new online services that allow you to search for people's criminal records, thus removing practical obscurity that old systems used to allow.

all for the better? because we should know when people are criminals right?

Or perhaps sometimes, it's important to forgive and forget.

Described by Brubaker and Cooper (200, pg.10) as a ‘common sense’ use of identity,
consistency of identity over time, space, and social sphere is required by surveillance
discourse in order for identity to carry risk information and act as a ‘risk-signifier’.
This permanence of identity arises from the reliance upon biographic identities and
the ease of storage and retrieval of digital information. It problematises any legitimate attempt to change identity, for example, changing sex, fleeing persecution, escaping from previous experiences such as a criminal record or bad debts. Even state attemptsto create new identities (for example witness protection schemes or undercover policing) will experience this difficulty due to the proliferation of identity data in the private sector.

This raises questions as to when information included as part of an
identity should be discarded by data processors. At what point does information
become irrelevant for risk analysis and decision making? Does a criminal conviction
in an individual’s youth signal that they deserve employment less than somebody
without? A decreasing level of institutional ‘forgiveness’ can be anticipated as
institutional memories expand. In previous eras, an individual could escape from a
past mistake by moving to a new city, or waiting for a period of time. With searchable
databases, individuals are linked to less salubrious elements of their identities for
longer time spans. This has implications for anybody considering public life, as they
are liable to have any negatively perceived recorded events from their life revealed.

If identity is discursively understood as consistent over time, then what happens when(counter to this construction) identity changes in some way? For example, if a
recording error is made, data is lost or corrupted, or malicious hackers change
biographical details. Combined with the discursive assumption of accuracy, such
changes are hard to refute.
A criminal record signifies a conviction in the past. It requires substantial other evidence to make an inference from that to future or current behaviour. The belief that 'once a criminal, always a criminal' interacts with presumptions of database accuracy (the NYT article notes the problems created by sharing names with people) to leave people with a stigma that will negatively effect them throughout their lives. If anybody can conduct a criminal records search for any interest (rather than legitimately sensitive fields such as law enforcement or childcare), then people with previous criminal convictions are going to be discriminated against in a way that is not part of the justice system, and in addition to the punishment they experienced for the crime they were convicted of.

"I'm sorry, I'm not giving you a job, teh internets say you are a criminal."
"I'm sorry, you can't live here, teh internets say you are a criminal. "

Another factor that risks trapping people within a cycle of criminality.

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