Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Hank Asher

Dennis Bailey at The Open Society Paradox objects to my characterization of Hank Asher, and says:

Rather than debate the merits of the program, they have to make this a personal attack on the man.

Well, let’s talk about the programs. DBT, the first company Asher founded, was deeply involved in disenfranchising Florida voters. MATRIX is sorta hard to discuss. Us peons aren’t allowed to know what’s actually in it. We do know that when people started asking questions, Georgia and other states dropped out of the program. (You might expect Mr. Bailey, in favor of openness, to oppose secret databases.) So what can we say about it? We can presume that the data in these things is horribly inaccurate, because every time we get a glimpse, it is horribly inaccurate.

So yes, I’ll attack the man who profits by creating these systems. I think secret databases are repugnant.

Privacy advocates say that if we have a more open society many people will have to wear scarlet letters because of past mistakes. One would expect that it would be liberals who would be praising a story about a man who turned from a life of crime to become a productive member of society. However, in the discussions I’ve seen on the net about Hank Asher, it’s this same crowd who are stitching those scarlet letters. I guess turning your life around only qualifies as worthwhile as long as you do work that liberals support and obviously data mining to fight crime and terrorism doesn’t qualify.

Sure. So lets look at what he did, and what the effects of what he did. He hid his past. He may have lied to the DEA and FBI, who suspected contracts with his company until they bought him out for $147m. If you think this company was doing good, it seems wrong of him to hold it hostage by refusing to leave when the main customers decide to stop doing business with him.

If you want to put your past behind you, that’s fine. If you’re building databases that are being used to assess criminals, then it is perhaps relevant that you were one. There’s irony (and audacity) in a man who tries to prevent anyone from hiding their past, while hiding his own. He’s created systems that affect millions of people, while avoiding regulation or inquiries into his own past. And then there’s that nagging data accuracy question. Did he build filters into the program? Remove a few interesting links from the database?

Frank Abagnale, in contrast, has not lied about his past since serving his time. I have no problem with Frank being rehabilitated. (Friends who’ve employed him also say that he does great work. But they hire him knowing full well they’re hiring an ex-con.)

If Mr. Asher would like to build a private investigative agency, he should expect that people will investigate him. If he’d like to run an art gallery, I’d be all in favor of letting him put his, and everyone else’s, past to rest. But as a gossip-monger? He reaps what he sows.

7 comments on "Hank Asher"

  • Are we reading the same article? Did you miss these parts?
    Where does it say he lied?
    “To the D.E.A.’s Miami office, the Asher story was years old. F.D.L.E. director Tim Moore certainly knew about it. But Asher believes his enemies at DBT spread the story to other law-enforcement officials, who hadn’t heard it before.”
    As for states dropping out of the program:
    “At first, 13 states signed on. Then one after another began dropping out. The A.C.L.U.’s drumbeating scared off some states, such as Utah. Prospective costs were also a concern.”
    Costs and a propaganda campaign by the ACLU causing States to drop out of Matrix are not much of an indictment of the program.
    The positives you seem to miss:
    “Hank donated AutoTrack to America’s Most Wanted,” says Walsh. “He made the overture to me; he wanted to get involved.” AutoTrack’s impact was hard to overestimate. “Typically on a Saturday night we’d have a horrible case—a very inexperienced cop who begged to get his case on America’s Most Wanted,” says Walsh. “We’d analyze the case on AutoTrack and say, Oh my God, that’s the car we’re looking for, that’s the guy.”
    Walsh had also helped set up the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Here, too, AutoTrack proved invaluable. In 74 percent of abduction homicides, observes the center’s president and C.E.O., Ernie Allen, the child is dead within the first three hours. Prior to AutoTrack, the center had been able to do little more in those critical hours than circulate pictures of missing children with a 24-hour hotline number and relay leads to overworked police officers. Now one or two tiny details of the abduction—”red pickup truck,” say, or “a 3 in the license plate”—could be entered into AutoTrack and matched to a list of known sexual predators in that geographic area. Up might come a telltale name.
    Far more children, observes Walsh, are abducted each year by what he calls “the psychopath parent who didn’t get custody.” Of the more than 100,000 cases tracked since 1990 by the center, AutoTrack and Accurint have proved helpful in literally thousands of them. Always, Walsh notes, Asher has made his systems available to the center for free. Neither for that nor for the financial contributions he’s made has he sought any public recognition. “Hank doesn’t want anyone to know what he gives,” says Walsh, but he and the center’s Ernie Allen think it’s time the center’s largest private donor got credit. Asher’s most recent donation—only his most recent—was a reported $7.9 million.
    Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani rallied, too. “It seems to me that what Hank has been doing for some time is in essence to make up for some of the mistakes he may have made,” Giuliani calls in to say from the Republican campaign trail. “Those mistakes are way behind him.”
    Of course I don’t support secret databases, being an advocate of opennness. You’re a pyromaniac running around in a field of straw men suggesting that. My support for the MATRIX system is independent of my views on whether those who manage it are secretive. As a tool it can be effective for law enforcement who are tracking down missing children, for instance. Don’t ask me, ask John Walsh.

  • adam says:

    Yes, we’re reading the same article, from that roundup you critiqued. I also read several of the other articles. I have not read anyone who said he lied. That is an inference that I’m making. But what caused the DEA to pull back? Maybe others at the DEA hadn’t heard about it? How could “enemies at his company” get the DEA to freeze a contract otherwise?
    The ACLU beats lots of drums; sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. I’d like to think that they win or lose on the merits, and the nice anecdotes you provide didn’t overcome data quality or other problems. Problems which we don’t know about, because these folks are secretive.
    As to the ‘psycopath parent,’ I would guess that the state already knows their name, has access to vehicle registrations, etc. But compare phrases like “Up might come a telltale name” (abduction homicides) to “helpful in thousands of cases.”
    So there’s lots of positive details in, umm, Vanity Fair. I choose to count them as what they are, anecdotes. I looked at other sources as well—places noted for their investigative reporting, rather than celebrity profiles.

  • Hank Asher Blogs

    Ah, it is only narcissim that makes us think we’re the only ones… Here are other Hank Asher blogs:

  • Val says:

    Without emotion, it is a fact that Hank Asher was not employed by DBT Online (DBT) when DBT produced the list that disenfranchised some Florida Voters. And, because Hank Asher founded DBT and sold it does not logically mean he is responsible for what the company does subsequent to his departure.
    As for MATRIX, “we peons” should read, “the public.” The public is not allowed access to MATRIX data. And why should the public have access to the results of proprietary algorithms that sift through public records data and private records data?
    We, the public, do have access to “public” records. All we have to do is request the record or records from the appropriate government agency and wait.
    The problem is not with MATRIX. As a law enforcement investigative tool it has a place in that it saves alot of investigative time and while the data does not change, it is available to sort through with different algorithms – and therein lies its power.
    The problem, as I see it, is with the unfettered ability to act on the data without judicial review, where acting on the data means infringing upon a person’s civil rights. For that, we can thank The Patriot Act, not MATRIX and not Hank Asher.
    You stated, “We can presume that the data in these things is horribly inaccurate, because every time we get a glimpse, it is horribly inaccurate.”
    First, if you actually saw the results of the search, you would probably see that the data set returned by the query was actually “correct” for that particular query. Second, the State of Florida has a responsibility to understand the algorithm used to create the query and subsequent data set; it appears to me as if the State of Florida did not do its own due diligence. Finally, the data itself “is what it is.” And it is only as good as the records obtained from the state’s public records and only as good as those obtained from private sources.
    Therefore, we cannot presume that the data “in these things is horribly innacurate.” We can, however, read in the Vanity Fair article Hank’s own words:
    “I know exactly what happened ’cause I talked to some programmers—they’re friends of mine,” he says. “They wrote the program wrong. They forgot to only link people with felonies. They had misdemeanors too, so if some poor guy 20 years ago shoplifted or whatever, drove away from a gas station without paying for the gas or whatever, they tagged him as an illegal voter.”
    It was not the data that was horribly inaccurate.
    Next, referring to Hank Asher, you said, “He hid his past.” You then made a huge assumption about him by stating, “He MAY have lied to the DEA and FBI…” Considering that in print and from several different sources who have gone on record, it is clear that several individuals within Florida Law Enforcement knew prior to conducting business with his company, DBT (Database Technologies), that Hank Asher had, in fact, used his airplane to smuggle cocaine, “seven times between Easter and June of 1982,” according to Hank Asher and recorded in the Vanity Fair article.
    Between Easter and June, 1982. Without turning my head from the fact that smuggling is illegal, this activity lasted a whopping 3 months out of his entire life. And, again, without minimizing this pop culture crime, it was Hank Asher, through F. Lee Bailey, who told the DEA what he had done. Maybe the DEA had the same communication problem as the FBI.
    It is probably true that some people working within law enforcement agencies had no idea that Hank Asher had a 3 month smuggling history over a decade prior to starting DBT. But to leap from their lack of knowledge to Hank Asher “lying” is a leap with no basis in fact.
    Finally, you are asking several questions and offering the fact that you have no answers to these questions up as evidence that Hank Asher lied.
    You asked, “But what caused the DEA to pull back? Maybe others at the DEA hadn’t heard about it? How could “enemies at his company” get the DEA to freeze a contract otherwise?”
    Is that word, “otherwise” there for us to infer that Hank Asher lying is the only explanation?
    Re-read the Vanity Fair article, please. It isn’t simply that, “there’s lots of positive details in, umm, Vanity Fair.” That is a factual, well-written, balanced article that gives people who do not know Hank Asher a clearer picture of the man who started a business that provided a product for which there was growing need. He has certainly profited, that is the underlying “reason” for being in business – any business. And he has also given – generously for causes he believes in and without fanfare.

  • adam says:

    I have no idea if there are other explanations for his contract being suspended. None spring to mind. Care to offer some? You say a whole lot without offering theories.
    As to Florida, Asher has an opinion as to what happened. He wasn’t in the room; heck, he wasn’t even in the company at the time. You report on his reporting on the programmer’s claims to the nature of the error. But those programmers are under non-disclosure agreements. So we have hearsay about a breach of confidentiality. You’ll pardon my skepticism. When a real investigation happens, it gets direct evidence, not second order comments. But the public is has not been allowed to look at the code, or the algorithms that generated the results. I think that’s poor public policy.

  • Val says:

    This is the point, though. What I am trying to convey is that because we do not know why the contract was suspended does not therefore mean that Hank Asher lied. If I had to model the argument, it would go something like this:
    The Smith’s baby girl suddenly died.
    Why did the Smith’s baby girl die?
    We don’t have a reason, so, it must be witchcraft.
    The fact that I cannot offer an explanation does not mean that your assumption that Hank lied is correct.
    And you wrote, “Well, let’s talk about the programs. DBT, the first company Asher founded, was deeply involved in disenfranchising Florida voters.”
    You cannot use the Florida Voting fiasco to impugn Hank Asher when he did not write the program to sort through and retrieve data. He wasn’t there.
    Where does your skepticism lie? There is no magic or mystery here. You stated that the data is “horribly innacurate.” I do not believe the pool of data data is horribly innacurate. I believe the query used to extract records was not the appropriate query, if one wanted to have a list of convicted felons.
    The State of Florida took the list generated and used it. Therein lies the fault, in my humble opinion. It does not lie with Hank Asher.

  • adam says:

    Why don’t we work with the facts, rather than analogies?

    1. Asher founded a company.
    2. Some Florida officials knew his history.
    3. The DEA suspended its contract with Siesent.
    4. Asher negotiated a buy-out
    5. The contract was resumed.

    It seems to me that that indicates that DEA officials were not aware of Asher’s past. That’s an explanation. It may, as I’ve said, be wrong. That doesn’t prevent me from using it as a working hypothesis, absent other data or explanations, which no one seems able to provide.

    I wasn’t impugning Asher in reference to the programs. The programs were touted as evidence of his brilliance and good works. I question the effects of those programs. He created some very powerful tools. That’s cool. I like powerful tools. Those tools were misused by the people he trained to use them. I think thats an indicator that those powerful tools are also dangerous tools. That may color the way some people see them.

    Finally, we seem to have lost sight of the old quip, “garbage in, garbage out.” Reports on people tend to contain errors. Does Matrix magically eliminate those errors? We all know credit files contain errors, criminal histories contain errors, due to identity theft and other issues, presumably other records suffer from similar issues.

    So Asher created a tool, promoted the hell out of it, prevented the public from understanding how it works, and then claims to have no responsibility when it’s misused? Ok. I’m willing to accept that for the sake of argument. I don’t want to see bars held responsible for drunk drivers, or firearms companies held responsible for school shootings. But a brilliant creator might spend time educating people that the thing he’s built might have some side effects. Might not be the be-all, end-all oracle. An ethical creator has a responsibility to, according to the professional societies for software engineers, such as the ACM or IEEE.

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