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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #71       Copyright 1998 Bridge Communications          May 14, 1998
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Quotes and Provocations
          When Computers Can't Finger You
          Are Unintended Consequences Really Unintended?
          The Most Powerful Tools Are Unbearably Simple
          Popular Superstition and Scientific Fears
          Brief Notes
    *** Who Said That?
    *** About this newsletter

    What Readers Are Saying about NETFUTURE

    "I'm a professional information technology analyst and academic, and I find NETFUTURE one of the more interesting resources in the field, primarily due to the author's willingness to go against the grain and raise important questions about the use of information technology and its implications for society."

    (For the identity of the speaker, an expatriate American professor who has
    helped fashion U.S. information policy, see "Who Said
    That?" below.) 

    *** Quotes and Provocations

    When Computers Can't Finger You

    Ken Payne has a skin condition that makes his fingerprints unreliable, so he has been barred from teaching in California classrooms. While an expert can identify his prints, they aren't readable by electronic scanning devices. (It turns out that a small percentage of the population has this problem.) According to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, California Department of Justice officials "say they can't conclude Payne lacks a criminal past [as required by law] because their technicians can't compare his prints with the millions of others stored in the state's databases".

    Amazingly, while nearly everyone seems willing to grant that something isn't quite right in this picture and that the law needs amending, the situation has now gone unchanged for several years. Having fought the absurdity since being told years ago that he would never hold a full-time teaching position, Payne -- who has good recommendations as a teacher -- is on the verge of giving up and leaving the state. He sees "no apparent way" through the bureaucratic hurdles.

    Well, almost no way. It appears that, if he cut off his hands, he would qualify under the law's waiver for the disabled. Or he could become a felon, and then the system would finally be able to peg him. There are programs allowing some rehabilitated felons to become teachers.

    What I find most disturbing about this story is not that the system has committed an individual to an obviously wrong pigeonhole (such things are inevitable and can be quickly remedied if the right spirit infuses the system). Nor is it