A machine thought I was a terrorist

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Google thought I was a terrorist and there was nothing I could do about it.

Submitted: May 02, 2018

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Submitted: May 02, 2018



Google thought I was a terrorist and there was nothing I could do about it.

My name is Randee Alsten, which for some questionable algorithmic reason deemed my name the same as Raheen Al'sefti, known international reprobate. Searches for me started returning stories of war crimes and bombings. It was funny at first, especially the hilarious Tunisian goat kidnapping escapades -- hey, even terrorists need to start small.

Ultimately though, as the significance became apparent, and the results grew, humour would slip to the bottom of my considerations.

Before continuing, and perhaps for context, I'm a photographer and post images on various sites. I do professional work for magazines and occasional photojournalism -- nothing more dangerous than the ravenous looks of starving models. Though successful, I'm by no means renowned, and nothing I did could connect me to the hijinks of an international goat smuggler.

Had I bothered to check the numbers, I'd have seen requests for my services already started to decline.

My closest friends found my terrorist connection hilarious. Numerous off-colour jokes about bombs, politics, and, well, animals, found their way into my social streams. This was perhaps not a good development.

Caught up in the action, I failed to notice a further decline in call numbers.

Thoroughly unconcerned at this time, however, I played along. I created a hostage series of photos, featuring a masked man (me), with various dolls and stuff animals. I was demanding the return of the giant-size Milka Caramel bar. Otherwise, I'd execute one hostage a week.

One of my friends created a "save the hostages" campaign. He managed to raise $123, likely from people just not paying attention, or who found it equally funny.

Being a man of my word, three days later I posted images of a doll with its head cut off. It was good for a giggle, but nobody noticed it!

Well, except Milka, and I'm not even sure how it caught their attention. They wrote me a scary sounding letter, stating my joke, in their words, is "at best an ill-conceived and extraordinarily poor humour and at worst a maligning and enabling hate campaign".

I figured the fun had gone on long enough and replied my heartfelt apology. I felt the need to cite Google's failed algorithm are the source of the issue. My answer appeared to fall on deaf ears, and my client calls trickled to a dangerous low.

Though my joke photos were already relegated to internet oblivion, these tidbits seemed to reinforce some machine learning's impression that I'm an actual terrorist. Any search for me resulted only in tales of plots and plans as well as extremist propaganda. The real me got buried beyond page 2.

I contacted Google, or rather, filled in several forms, and managed to get several sites removed, as per my right to be forgotten. I inquired about the incorrect name mismatch but was unable to get far. One tech managed to get a few suggestions erased, but the algorithm quickly replaced them. I  was assured that somebody was looking into it.

Meanwhile, my client calls disappeared. Indeed, my final jobs were cancelled. I tried uploading photos to fresh job sites, but found much of my work blocked as "objectionable material". The algorithmic mismatch had wormed its way into secondary systems. Soon I found my name and websites blocked as inappropriate.

Perhaps a vacation would do me good, to regroup, and wait for the inquiry from Google. Alas, and maybe unsuprising, I was unable to book any airline tickets. This lie of my name had even gotten into the no-fly lists.

Desperation set in. I ran, literally ran, to the bank. My cards still worked. I withdrew what money I could. My daily limit was low, but I dared not risk presenting myself in person to a bank employee, lest they go through some ID system to verify me. I'd repeat my bank run for twelve days until my account was locked.

My internet disappeared around then, as well as my phone connection. I found myself browsing a public terminal in the library. The headlines were devastating, "Local factions moving money" and "Imminent attack on home soil". This algorithmic anomaly had soiled police databases.

Most of my friends seemed to have distanced themselves as well. Several cited the classic, "Sorry, but I have to think of my family." I was uncertain what they truly believed anymore.

When you hear of desperation, you can never truly understand what it feels like. Are the people just overly concerned, pessimistic, or having an existential crisis. I must admit I was like that as well, never understanding how bleak a situation could get.

I was ruined.

An algorithm had utterly destroyed my life.

I don't know what comes next.


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