Monday, October 06, 2008

Today in the US Supreme Court: Will bad data trump your Fourth Amendment rights?

Wired Threat Level Blog: Supremes Mull Whether Bad Databases Make for Illegal Searches

Although I tend to reserve this space for items about DB2, Ryan Singel's story about Herring vs. US 07-513, a Supreme Court case scheduled for today, struck me as being timely enough and important enough to mention here. I think you'll agree that the implications of this case on database administrators are profound, no matter which side of the argument you happen to support.

If you agree with the adage that says the most important tests of our civil rights involve the least defensible members of society, then it will come as no surprise that the Mr. Herring for which the case is named is a truly skeezy character, enough to arouse suspicions when he visited the Sheriff's Office in Coffee County, Alabama back in 2004. When an investigator there ran a couple of warrants searches on him, they got a hit in nearby Dale County and used it as the justification for locating Herring, pulling him over, and searching his truck for evidence. Sure enough, their search turned up drugs and an illegal weapon, giving them the makings of what appeared to be an open-and-shut case. The problem is that Dale County had no business telling anyone that there was an active warrant out on that guy. The warrant was supposed to have been removed from their system months earlier, but nobody got around to it. If they had, there wouldn't have been any compelling reason to pull Herring over and conduct the search. You might think that a bust made as the result of erroneous data would kill the case, or at least disqualify the resulting evidence obtained during the arrest, but the government disagrees.

Any database professional involved with law enforcement or criminal justice data should be rightfully concerned about such a precedent (should the Supremes uphold it), since it tells us that bad data in our systems may not only open us up to civil suits (the only recourse we citizens have, according to the government), but also to searches and seizures directed at some otherwise upstanding citizens who are guilty of nothing more than bad luck.

How much longer until you as a DBA are asked to insert some knowingly bogus data to help an ongoing investigation?

Keep an eye on this blog for more details on the case.

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