Stephen Baker

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For data-mining cops, tattoos are tags

February 18, 2010Hop Skip Go

Anyone concerned about privacy in a world of surveillance cameras should read the New York Times article on tattoos. New York police have a data base of tattoos of people they've questioned. It doesn't say how many tattoos are featured, but if someone who commits a crime is spotted a tattoo with the words "I love," the cops can call up 596 possible suspects--and then sharpen the focus geographically.

People with tattoos are unwittingly tagging themselves for data miners. Unlike a limp or a beard, a tattoo endures. In that sense, it's more like a scar. A tattoo with words is especially useful, because it's easier to remember and to classify. What's more, those analyzing populations, from marketers to cops, might consider people with similar tattoos as a behavioral tribe. Maybe people who declare their love to their mother, or their Harley, buy certain types of cars, or beer. Turns out we not only type and click rivers of unstructured data, we cover ourselves with it.

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