Here is an interesting article from SPIEGEL ONLINE (unfortunately in German only). It describes how one of their journalists – Franz Walter – ended up in Spock.com as being related to the National Socialist Walter Gross. This caused another newspaper to contact Mr. Walter and ask him where he stood politically.
To understand the significance of this event, you should know that for all even half-way decent Germans any association with the former National Socialists is abhorrent. On top of this, the SPIEGEL ONLINE and its journalists are well known for their left-leaning political alignment, making such an association professionally untenable.
The root cause for this event seemed to have been a particular image on the web. That image had the file name “walter_gross.jpg”, which would translate into English as “walter_big.jpg”, referencing a large image of Mr. Walter. The algorithms of Spock were tuned to English key words, but associated a file called “walter_gross.jpg” to the former head of the national socialist racial policy office.
This episode is quite telling: when architecting complex identity system, we must be very careful with the semantic significance of attributes of a given digital identity. In this example, the linguistic limitations of the algorithm caused a false identification of a living person with a dead criminal.
This time it did not cause any harm, mostly because it was extreme and found very early. But what if a similar incident happens to fresh college graduate looking for a job? In this day, it not too uncommon for managers and HR departments to take a quick look at what Google, LinkedIn, or other search engines or social networks turn up on a given name. It is bad enough, when people ruin their reputation by publishing inappropriate photos of themselves. Worse, if someone impersonates an adversary and tries to ruin his or her online reputation. But having an “Identity System” or social network do this automatically makes me very afraid.