Keyword: Seizure

The joys of computer assisted research and eDiscovery have a new member of the family: forfeiture.  Via David Axe at  War is Boring :


Dec 20, 2012

Artist’s Advance for Graphic Novel Seized by Office of Foreign Assets Control — OFAC

Brooklyn, NY — Tim Hamilton, artist of the Eisner-nominated adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, had his advance payment for the upcoming graphic novel ARMY OF GOD, a non-fiction telling of Joseph Kony’s activities in the Congo, seized by the OFAC under suspicion that the money was being laundering for a terrorist organization.


The federal banking authority, which monitors every wire, foreign and domestic, apparently seized the funds due to the title of the book, ARMY OF GOD, which threw up a red flag.

And he thought he could sneak it through, just because the advance, combined with the title, had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with laundering money for a terrorist organization. Some people just don’t think binary.

ARMY OF GOD cover.  

The adoration of the efficacy of computers has already happened, creating a net around our lives that we can’t escape.  There is no one to talk to , to explain to, to reason with.  It’s a computer program that spits out whatever its programmer decides offends the sovereign.  Book titles, for example.  And once a red flag is thrown, seizure follows.  After all, a computer said so, and everyone knows that computers can do no wrong.

Skeptical technophiles will react with, “certainly the problem was immediately resolved when someone called the Office of Foreign Asset Control and explained that a mistake was made.”  Oddly, no.  The funds have not been released, with or without an apology for the hassle and abject stupidity of the seizure.  Only someone wholly unfamiliar with the workings of our bureacracy would make such a silly assumption.

Once the computer spits out a seizure, a wave of overriding concern washes over its human servants.  The concern is not that a mistake was made, and that an innocent and perfectly lawful transaction was interrupted by the machine, but that any decision to ignore or override the computer could lead to human error, the release of funds that might subject the person to criticism and scorn.  Blaming a computer is easier than taking a chance by doing right.

Whether David Axe’s book sucks or is a work of genius is irrelevant.  For all I know, the content could be utterly crazy and its value to society non-existent.  But it’s a book.  People in America are allowed to write them, and if someone is willing to publish them, they are allowed to get an advance.  The subject of the book, whether controversial or not, is none of the government’s business.  The title of the book, Army of God, is entirely up to the author’s and publisher’s discretion.  The government doesn’t get to grab the loot because the title included the keywords programmed into some computer.

Reliance on computers to do a job that was once considered best left to senscient beings is applauded by a great many lawyers as a way to be more effective, both in terms of cost and effort.  As this case reflects, however, it has its fundamental flaws.  The old GIGO problem will always be with us, but the speed and efficiency that comes from reliance on technology has a price. It’s just not as good at what it’s supposed to do as we pretend it is.

Axe should eventually get his advance released by the government, which some will see as a perfectly acceptable resolution.  After all, he gets paid and society is protected from potential money laundering to terrorist organizations.  Problem solved, right?

Except Axe might not get his advance release.  Or it might take Axe years to do so. Or it might cost him (or someone) tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to do so. And it might mean that another author doesn’t write a book that will enlighten us about an issue of importance because he won’t get paid. 

The easy answer is to say it isn’t the computer’s fault, as it only does what it’s programmed to do.  If the government did a better job programming, then a ridiculous screw-up like this wouldn’t happen.  Except this isn’t a screw-up from the government’s perspective. 

Their purpose is to make sure no evil payment gets through, which means that innocent payments will be swept up as well, the false positives that are necessary to an impenetrable net.  The government sees no issue with our taking one for the team as the price of security. Of course, we are the ones paying their price.

If Axe eventually gets his funds, some will proclaim the seizure mechanism a huge success. But getting what should never have been touched in the first place is hardly a solution.  The solution is the government keeping its sticky computer fingers out of places where they don’t belong.  And there is no indication that is going to happen. Indeed, every indication is that it will only get worse.  So do you still love computers as much as you used to? 

H/T Radley Balko

13 comments on “Keyword: Seizure

  1. Keith Lee

    The above scenario where a computer incorrectly holds something due to a database of flagged words is referred to as the Scunthorpe Problem.

    And people are only going to increasingly rely upon database filtering considering the overwhelming amount of information that is produced. It’s going to be a filter first, review later (likely much later) for the foreseeable future.

    [Ed. Note: Link added.]

  2. Bruce Coulson

    This is another example of ‘power without responsibility’. Presuming that Mr. Hamilton finally gets back the money that was taken, I’m sure a variant of ‘mistakes were made’ will be appended to the statement. No person is at fault for seizing the money, so no one can be held accountable for the seizure. And changing (let alone abandoning) a successful system for preventing money from funding terrorists won’t be considered. What’s a little collateral financial damage, compared to the safety of millions of Americans? Mr. Hamilton should be happy that the government is so assidious in guaranteeing his welfare.

  3. Frank

    OFAC is the financial version of TSA: They go through all the motions, spend all that money, and don’t catch a single terrorist while harassing innocents.

    Keyword searches like this are the equivalent of TSA finding a snow globe. Only dumb terrorists will flag a bank wire with “Jihad” or “Attack on new WTC”. An actual terrorist bank wire will have some innocuous flag like “Project 87012” so that it doesn’t attract attention.

    In a parallel situation I pointed out this little fact to a Port Authority police seargant and got “did you get that out of a terrorist handbook?” Apparently common sense and critical thinking are absent at all levels of government.

  4. Frank

    “Computers Don’t Argue” is a short story from the 50’s that point out the dangers of relying on computers, databases, and keyword searches without a cheap AI (read: functioning human brain) in the loop.

    It’s open source on the internet these days, and should be required reading for everyone, not just IT.

  5. Dante

    I don’t see this as a “computer problem”, but more of a “lack of accountability” problem.

    When nobody is ever held responsible for their mistakes (or the mistakes they directed the computer to make), they make a lot more mistakes. Pretty soon, all they make are mistakes because nobody differentiates between the two.

    Making nothing but mistakes? Viola! I give you our Federal Government.

  6. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    Technology will take us to places we always wanted to go as well as places we never wanted to be. Well, that is not entirely or, maybe even at all, correct. It is human beings who will take us to these places; places we can never or will ever imagine . . .

    The fact is, technology is always neutral; it doesn’t think or feel to begin with – it is we who assign it with the characteristics of good or evil . . .

  7. Nigel Declan

    Orin Kerr at Volokh Conspiracy would probably agree with you about the neutrality of technology.

  8. SHG

    I’m fairly certain that Orin would agree, but that wasn’t the sort of neutrality he tends to favor.

  9. George B

    Did a kindergartner make a gun with this thumb and finger?? *That* would explain why it was seized — importing weapons!

  10. Elizabeth Conley

    While we may consider this forfeiture to be an error, the DHS probably does not.

    Graphic novels reach a segment of the U.S. population that doesn’t like to read. If Axe’s graphic novels can cause this segment to become more engaged, the books would be defined by the DHS as “soft terrorism.”

  11. Bruce Coulson

    On the wisdom of following computer instructions:

    “Spock: Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them.”

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