Sunday, June 22, 2008


Last night Rob Sawyer, Nick DiChario, and I did a reading/signing/panel at the local B&N. This was a lot of fun, and well-attended, thanks to the excellent publicity manager. Both before and afterwards, I had dinner/drinks with Rob, Nick, and other people, and the subject of fingerprinting came up.

In August I'm teaching at the Writers & Books "writing camp" for kids. I have only one section of 9-13-year-olds, mornings for a week. Many of the children, however, attend different types of writing classes all day. Many are younger. Some will be going on field trips with the instructors and interns. This year, for the first time, the Writers & Books Board of Directors has decided that all instructors working with children should undergo background checks, including fingerprinting.

At least one instructor has refused and may quit before the summer even begins.

I have already been fingerprinted and background-checked, a necessary requirement of some volunteer work I've done with children (Court Appointed Special Advocate in Maryland, Big Brother/Big Sister program here). I had no objection, since it makes sense to me that if you're going to allow a nine-year-old to get into a car alone with a stranger, you want to know a lot about that person beforehand. I didn't object to the government talking to my neighbors to check up on me, or searching my police records (two speeding tickets in 35 years), or whatever else they want to do. The other instructor does object. Given the current political climate, she does not want information about her life on file anywhere. She's apprehensive about what future uses it may be put.

This is a difficult question, with arguments on both sides. The most interesting thing to come out of last night's discussion, however, was from a man who said he was supposed to be printed, and then was told, "Oh, we don't need to do that -- your fingerprints are already on file with the FBI."

He said, astonished, "They are?"

"Yes," he was told. "You did a fingerprinting merit badge when you were a Boy Scout."


Steven Francis Murphy said...

I can't get too worked up over the background check thing. The Army took fingerprints and god knows what else when I signed up back in 1989. You could already say that the Government has a file on me.

My response to most folks who squirm is to say, "Get over it. The telemarketers have the same information on you based upon your credit card habits."

S. F. Murphy

James A. Ritchie said...

As Jerry Pournelle says, "But we were born free."

Fingerprinting? Good God, how paranoid can we get in the name of safety?

Daniel said...

People who don't want the government to have data on them are oblivious to the fact that they already have data on them. I'm quite certain "they" have plenty of info on me, so I don't really care about background checks and fingerprinting. Really, the only two groups that I do care about, the only groups I don't want to have info on me are marketers and creepy dudes in their parents' basement.

Years ago, I got my fingerprinting merit badge also, and it does bother me that the FBI would take advantage of a Boy Scout activity to gather data on people. I would think that the Boy Scouts (i.e., the kids) would be pretty low on the FBI's list of concerns...

cd said...

I liked Brin's suggestion on this subject: that there is no going back, so the way forward is to fight for maximal transparency. Let the govt have your prints, but they must be absolutely transparent about what is done with them.

g d townshende said...

Having been an Air Force brat during my first 17-years on this rock, and having been in the military myself for 4 years, plus all the background checks I've already gone through because of some of the jobs I've held, I don't even want to think about the size of the file Big Brother has on me!

As for the safety of kids,... well,... with two of my own, and having learned recently that my boss's boss was recently 'canned' because he's got to serve an 18-month sentence for some things he did to a 14-year-old girl (not to mention several other previous offenses)... I can well understand the present mindset.

TheOFloinn said...

This sort of thing was an inevitable outcome of outsourcing one's children to strangers. Perceived risk increases with a) uncertainty and b) perceived lack of control. The stranger is always more risky than funny old Uncle Jack. Riding an airplane is perceived as more risky than driving a car.

It used to be that you could rely on the vetting process of the organization - the Boy Scouts, the local library, and so on - but this no longer seems to be the case. There are even laws that prevent the organization from being overly careful. In some cases, the vetting process itself has fallen into the wrong hands. The Internet is a wonderful way for previously solitary predators to organize themselves into a network.

I understand genuine cases of pedophilia are rare. The infamous Day Care Center witch hunts turned out no actual molesters; though the lurid stories were sufficient to spook the herd. Most abductions are by non-custodial parents (another modern innovation), and most cases of child abuse involve older teenagers. When I was teen-aged summer help, there was an older press-helper that the printers warned me against. "He likes boys." Everyone in that plant kept an eye on him, because they knew him and kept him on a leash. But with increased modern mobility, who knows the guy who just moved in from Kokomo? We are so accustomed to letting the federal government Do Everything that the task defaults to them. Would you trust a private firm to gather such data?

In Risk Analysis, we were taught to evaluate the product of likelihood and criticality. Stranger child abduction and molestation may be rare, but the outcome is critical, and so preventive action is deemed warranted.

Now throw in the alpha and beta risks. These are: "crying wolf" and "asleep at the switch." IOW, a vetting process may flag someone who in the last analysis should not have been flagged and fail to flag someone who should have been. As soon as the latter happens, everyone wants to tighten up the criteria. That will reduce beta; but alpha will increase....

Nick A said...

1) What the documentary "Deliver Us From Evil", on IFC occasionally. It will clarify why any 'kids in camp' organization has justified concern on background checks for all involved adults.

2) Have someone steal your identity. I won't go into details, but suffice to say it is the 'wild west' in terms of what someone with malicious intent can do in the highly decentralized, largely unregulated, information environment we live in. Don't want 'big brother', but as a parent I would like assurance on any adults around my son...

TheOFloinn said...

Fngerprinting those who will be giving your kids a ride is one thing.

But file clerks in mortgage companies? Whoever is running Congress these days is dancing down the path, for sure.