ITGS Exam revision: databases

Online offender map
Family Watchdog offender map (source)

Databases are a fundamental topic in ITGS and computer science in general, and I can virtually guarantee there will be at least one exam question on them each session. Often, even if an IT system doesn’t look like a database, somewhere behind the scenes one is active. There are three ITGS social / ethical issues that often arise whenever we talk about databases: 1.1 Reliability and Integrity, 1.2 Security, and 1.3 Privacy and Anonymity (there may be other issues too, but these three tend to be the most common). In class we have studied several controversial databases which raises significant concerns about these issues.

Online offender databases

Online offender map
Family Watchdog offender map (source)

Online offender databases are common in the US. Sites like Family Watchdog provide information about convicted offenders who have been released back into the community. The map to the right shows a Family Watchdog map for Washington DC. The coloured squares each represent the home address of an offender. Clicking on the square reveals more information, often including sensitive data such as a photograph and a record of their crimes. This wealth of information is available to anybody with an Internet connection.

Such databases are legal in the US. In fact, states are required by law to both store details of sex offenders and to provide public notification for certain offenders. Indeed, even before the advent of the Internet and online offender databases, much of this information could be accessed by the public on request.

You can find more examples of online offender databases on the ITGS textbook web site.

Gun permit holder database

In December 2012 the already fierce gun control debate in the US was re-ignited after the shooting of 20 children and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School. A week later New York newspaper The Journal News published an online interactive map titled “The Gun Owner Next Door: What You Don’t Know About the Weapons in Your Neighborhood”, which showed the location of all handgun permit owners in two New York counties.

The map allowed anybody with Internet access to view the names and addresses of these permit holders, whether they currently own a gun or not. The information was obtained by The Journal News under a Freedom of Information request – such data is kept by police departments in New York State and is publicly available.

Gun permit map
Westchester County gun permit holder map (source)

The map caused considerable concern, with some accusing the newspaper of attempted intimidation, and some gun owners complaining that their privacy and their safety had been compromised. The newspaper received hundreds of complaints and eventually removed the personally identifying data from the map, keeping just the “gun density” version shown here.To make matters worse,  The Verge later reported that the map was found to be inaccurate with only 3,907 of the 16,998 permits being current.

ITGS Exam revision questions

1. One online offender database in New Zealand is run by the Sensible Sentencing Trust. The trust is a political group advocating for harsher prison sentences (among other things). The group relies on the media and the public for information to add to their database. Their web site states:

“These databases are not complete. They are a work in progress, and probably always will be.”

To what extent do the benefits to the public of a database like the one described here outweigh the potential problems? [8 marks]

2. In both of the examples above, the information contained in the databases was legally available to the public in an offline format by requesting it from a police department in person or in writing. Evaluate the issues that are raised by having this data placed online by a stakeholder other than the police themselves. [8 marks]

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