Tech UPTechnologyThe computer bug that unleashed 450 of America's most...

The computer bug that unleashed 450 of America's most violent criminals

In general, putting our faith in computer screens, algorithms, and big data is often more practical than putting our faith in human judgment or intuition. However, computer systems also make failures and, as we depend more on them, we are also exposed to falling victims of more profound errors that can affect large numbers of people in a very short time.

A paradigmatic case is the failures that occur in electronic medical records, which can literally kill the patient. Doctors in Birmingham, England, found a few years ago that 10% of online records contained outdated information , including errors in prescribing drugs to patients who were allergic to them.

The computerization of the prison system has also led to some fatal oversights. The best known of these was the release of 450 of the most dangerous criminals in the state of California.

In 2011, California state prisons released 450 convicts classified as high risk, including members of street gangs, armed robbers and rapists, simply because prison staff accepted the information that appeared as reliable. in the records. More than 1,000 less dangerous convicts were also released on unsupervised probation as a result of this software flaw.

The problem arose when a plan was put in place to empty the state’s prisons, which were becoming overcrowded, thus releasing less dangerous convicts who had already served a significant percentage of their sentences on parole. The software used to determine those selected drew on a Justice Department database that recorded arrests, but it lacked conviction information for nearly half of California’s 16.4 million arrests. Ultimately, the software had an error rate of 15% , confusing low-risk convicts with high-risk convicts.

The case of California would remain an anecdote if a good number of similar errors were not accounted for in other states and even other countries, which shows the extent to which computer systems are fallible . Thus, for example, an inmate serving a sentence in Massachusetts for his criminal activities as a hacker found it relatively easy to enter the computer network of the Department of Correction from the computer in the prison library, which he allegedly accessed to obtain legal information. on his own case. This illicit access allowed him to obtain private data of the 100,000 prison guards, as well as the files of the rest of the prisoners.

In addition to freeing convicts or leaving the doors open for a moderately educated hacker to obtain sensitive information, computer systems also lead to convictions of innocents, as happened in Great Britain, when police officers from the Office of Criminal Records had to admit that they were it had mistakenly considered more than 20,000 citizens as criminals . The most chilling thing is that many people were not even aware that they had a criminal record due to these failures in the system, despite the fact that this condition had not only ruined their reputation, but made it easier for them to be denied possible jobs and positions of volunteering.

Because what the screen says is true until proven otherwise, a security problem that, although we have to assume that it is less than that caused by a human employee, continues to be necessary to debug.

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