by Elizabeth Jacobson
Wired reports that a Maryland woman recently lost her job due to an error in the FBI’s criminal database. Eschol Amelia “Amy” Studnitz, formerly a senior accountant for Corporate Mailing Service, was required to undergo a background check after CMS won a contract to handle mail for the Social Security Administration. She was fired from her job after the FBI’s criminal database deemed her “unsuitable” for level-1 security clearance. Studnitz was not given any details regarding her background check.
Two weeks later, the SSA sent a letter to CMS saying that Studnitz had in fact passed the background check, and that an “unspecified” computer error caused the false report. Unfortunately, CMS is under no legal obligation to re-hire her. In this tight labor market, she’s been having a rough time finding employment and has fallen behind on her mortgage payment.
A spokesperson for the FBI said that they have no idea how often such mistakes are made, because they don’t keep track of their error rate. Is it so unreasonable to expect that a government agency charged with collecting and maintaining data about its citizens keeps track of metrics like accuracy and error rate? Any responsible private company or nonprofit outfit would want to know these sort of performance statistics.
Government failure is nothing new; it’s been well-documented on OpenMarket before. Instances of public sector incompetence like this should have everyone worried as the government gets ready to take over the health care sector. If the government can’t accurately keep track of its own criminal data, why on earth would we want to trust them with private health data? When dealing with matters of life and death, or aggressive treatment vs. palliative care, this kind of “unspecified” error could have serious consequences. How will we hold governmental data-keepers accountable?